Everywhere you look there are signs of decline — personal, societal and environmental. It is in music, films, television, ads and newspapers. To stay sane, everyone looks for a way to overcome the feeling of decay that surrounds them. “Safe,” one of the very best films of the 90s, is about two different attempts, both of which fail.
When the movie opens Carol White, played by Julianne Moore in her first leading role, feels unwell. She is the housewife of a wealthy businessman, living in the San Fernando Valley. Her life seems both dull and stressful. When Carol isn’t arguing with a pair of deliveryman who deliver a couch in black instead of white, she is staring blankly into space. She works out, prepares meals, goes to birthday parties, but always seems only half there. She is never openly miserable, always acting however people expect her to. But in small moments, when nobody is watching her, she shows how little she enjoys her life. Despite this, she has everyone fooled. She tries to cover up her unhappiness by not allowing anyone else to see it.
Then, over the course of the movies first hour, she gets very sick. Doctors cannot tell what it is. She is tested for allergies, put on diets, given less to do, but nothing works. But through all that we are shown of her life, we know instinctively that the illness comes from the overwhelming sense of unwellness Carol has.
In the second half, Carol enters into an inpatient rehab. If in the first section of the film she refused to admit to anyone that she had a problem, in the second half she begins to become obsessed with healing herself, by any means necessary. The rehab is designed for those who claim to be “allergic to the 20th century.” She listens to speakers who blame everything from pollution to modernization to godlessness for their illness. Carol at times seems to be improving, but when, near the end, she makes a speech, all she can do is repeat the cliches given to her. She has, like so many do, gone from a life obsessed with worldly things to one devoted to extreme, gratuitous asceticism.
Moore is amazing in her first leading role for her sheer non-presence. Carol is so removed from the world around her that she seems more like an object than a person. If it seems that Moore is being ironic in her performance, it is only because Carol is so accustomed to her own life that she has reached a point of self-parody.
The movie is just as brilliant as Todd Haynes more recent film “Carol,” but here it matches the themes perfectly. The heavily green, ultra saturated color scale shows how sickening and empty the world appears to Carol White.
Tony Schwab is a staff writer for Washington Square News.