Vanessa Joan Müller
Todd Haynes’s masterpiece Safe from 1995 once again became a focus of film critics recently as it seems to resonate perfectly with the present COVID-19 pandemic. A film about illness and isolation, it also offers an incisive analysis of the USA’s middle class at the dawn of the neoliberal era.
The house is spacious and covered with soft beige carpets. There are large sofas and an abundance of lush, green plants. It is the comfortable home of an upper-middle-class family in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, and yet it seems that the problems start in this very interior, with its clean, light surfaces and cocoon-like furniture. From day to day, the film’s protagonist Carol (Julianne Moore) busies herself with domestic errands and interior decorating. She organises and oversees small repairs, instructs the cleaning lady, exercises at the gym, meets like-minded housewives and maintains her social life. When at home, Carol herself appears part of the furniture, sitting with her upright posture against the beige palette that is her comfort zone. However, her posture serves to distract from something she is lacking: power. In her audio work entitled Beige, artist Hanne Lippard utters the words: “Beige is described a pale, yellowish cream colour. This description makes it clear that this is not a colour of power. Anything with an -ish lacks integrity.” The promises of the white US-American middle class are manifest in this setting, where family is a lifestyle. The apartment’s aesthetics are reminiscent of commercial advertisements and generate a cosy but cold image of a society striving for perfection through self-discipline and self-optimisation. Todd Haynes exposes a yearning for social success as distinguished by taste, education, and control. In this world it is all about the possession of economic, social and cultural capital. The aspiration for an expressive, unique self, which performs within the neoliberal logic of distinction and competition, is manifest in the attempt to give life both an aesthetic and ethical structure.
However, one day Carol complains that she feels worn down and, soon after, it appears that mysterious allergies and illnesses start to infect her body. In the beginning, they look like the symptoms of some unremarkable condition. Carol is irritated by the smell of the carpet, the chemicals of her perm, or the fumes she inhales while having coffee with a friend on a café terrace overlooking a busy street. But then there are the repeated moments of sudden blankness, the panic attack at a friend’s baby shower and the spasm while waiting at the dry cleaner. There is a growing sense of affliction in everyday situations, and Carol grows more and more silent, her voice fading mid-sentence at times. She experiences sinus trouble, suffers from nosebleeds and nausea. Alarmed by growing air pollution, Carol thinks her ‘feeling unwell’ is caused by something in the air — a chemical sensitivity or a yet unknown ‘environmental illness’.
What it is exactly that causes this strange illness is never identified, because in the end, Carol’s declining health is a metaphor of something more abstract. No doctor can figure out exactly what she suffers from, and the alternative medical doctors she consults have no clue either. She is allergic to consumer culture, to capitalism, if you will — to the mass production of an exclusionary American ideal that is considered a safe haven. The strange intoxication that takes control of her body is but a symptom of the void at the centre of her life, and this void represents the struggle of the middle class to act according to the masterplan called ‘middle-class life’. If alienation were a disease, Carol’s sufferings would be its symptoms.
Safe is set in 1987, when American consumerism has reached an all-time high, Ronald Reagan is president of the US and Margret Thatcher famously declares in an interview, ‘there is no such thing as society’. AIDS is all around, but not talked about. For Todd Haynes, Carol’s irremediable illness that leads her to self-sought isolation is a direct hint at HIV. But we could also link it to a time when what we now commonly call neoliberalism was rapidly taking shape. Safe meticulously shows neoliberalism’s effects on social behaviour and how it changed people’s attitudes towards their health, body and mind. The turn toward self-optimisation is already visible in Carol’s work-out at the gym. It becomes obvious when she considers her illness her personal failure and everyone around silently agrees: Carol has failed because she wasn’t able to listen to her body carefully enough. She hasn’t properly fulfilled her role as wife, mother and housewife. Consequently, her feeling ill began when she started to make ‘mistakes’ — questioning her own actions or the many unwritten rules of proper middle-class behaviour. Carol’s self-perception, like her self-evaluation, depends on reassurance from others, which results in a personality that struggles with the drive to be successful, on the one hand, and the evasion of her inner emptiness, on the other. Carol’s main problem is that no one responds to her symptoms, her seemingly odd behaviour. There’s panic in Carol’s face when the furniture manufacturers deliver a sofa in the wrong colour. It is black, not beige: an intruder in the soft, white cell called home.
In the second part of the film, Carol moves into the desert, seeking help from an esoteric community and their concepts of healing. In the last scene, she inhabits an igloo-like structure that is white, tiled, and aseptic. The metaphor of the cold has dominated the discourse of alienation from the moment the term was introduced. The hermetic igloo in the desert — a last resort for a person desperate to become ‘normal’ again — perfectly illustrates how the modern cold creeps into the individual’s body and mind. Alienation, as defined by Marx and his followers, dominated man’s relation to labour. In the case of modern-day alienation, as exemplified in Safe, illness is born out of the self, can be controlled by the self, and is a matter of taking control of oneself. In the film’s last scene, Carol looks into the mirror and tells herself ‘I love you’ over and over again, but her reciting sounds like a question rather than self-affirmation.
If we define alienation as a paradoxical state of isolation, where subjects confront relationships, institutions, things and human work as alien phenomena that can no longer be traced back to themselves, Carol is a perfect example of an alienated woman. The life she can no longer lead is based on the false ideal of authenticity, personal responsibility and flexibility. The neoliberal over-identification with one’s job (and, here, being the ideal wife and mother can be considered a job) expresses a clear conjunction of individual desire and social persona. The successful self is defined by the performative display of its singularity. It no longer strives for individualisation — as a result of the social transformation from heteronomy to self-determination — but for singularisation with its complicated relationship between independence and the desire for uniqueness. One effect of this all-encompassing performance called ‘lifestyle’ is the exhaustion, lethargy and depression summarised by alienation, or, in Todd Haynes’s visionary analysis of white, middle-class USA: a multiple allergic reaction to life itself.