A taxi arrives at a desert retreat center, bearing a young woman with a surgical mask around her neck. As the car rolls past the gate and into the compound, an old woman runs out of a white structure and screams, “Stop! Stop! Go back!” She’s covering her mouth, in fear of some unseen, airborne danger: “You’re contaminating this entire area!” The woman in the taxi urges her driver to stop; she, too, it seems, shares the same horror of contamination, of social distancing violated.
The scene is as contemporary as, well, today. Yet it comes from Safe, director Todd Haynes’s 1995 masterpiece about illness, immunity, and the roots of American safetyism—the attempt to sanitize life for the sake of physical health, at the expense of all other goods. Released at the dawn of the Sundance-led indie boom, Safe was subsequently (and rightly) judged to be among the greatest films of the 1990s: a disquieting early diagnosis of social pathologies that became impossible to ignore in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Critics returned to Safe last spring, as vast swaths of the developed world went into lockdowns. Mostly, this commentary focused on how the film’s protagonist, Carol (Julianne Moore in a stunning breakout role), voluntarily goes into lockdown after convincing herself that she suffers from a sort of generalized allergy to modern chemical pollutants. But it’s only now, more than a year into the pandemic, that we can see just how prescient Haynes was.
Safe has been described as a “science-fiction film that is also a period film.” The year is 1987. Carol is a housewife (“homemaker,” she tells her shrink) living in the gated suburbs of the San Fernando Valley. Hers is a life of comfort and predictable feminine routines: aerobics classes set to Madonna hits, French manicures and big perms, fruit diets, cold sex with a cold husband.
The science-fiction (or horror) dimension lies not in anything supernatural, but in the way Haynes portrays Carol’s world. Disorienting framing and wide-angle lenses underscore the alienation between the people who inhabit it. Unsettling ambient sounds and an ominous synthesizer score hint that there is something disordered or unnatural lurking behind a serene, sleek surface. A perm machine can look downright terrifying.
Then there is Carol herself. Even before she goes into lockdown (more on that shortly), she seems locked into herself. Yet all her anguish is kept at a distance and never given a satisfying release, except in the subtlest gestures, misspoken words, and silences: the way she receives and tolerates her husband’s thrusting in bed, her cut-off words when she learns a friend’s brother has died of HIV, her obvious discomfort around her sarcastic stepson.
That is, until her mysterious illness sets in. Exhaust from a truck throws her into a nightmarish fit of coughing (one of the most discomfiting 60 seconds in film history). The perm machine gives her a nosebleed. The sight of a stroller at a friend’s baby shower causes severe wheezing. A cleaning agent at her drycleaner sends her to the hospital with contortions and lips bitten so hard they bleed like a gunshot. Her husband’s cologne makes her wretch.
Something is wrong with Carol—or more precisely, with the hyper-modern landscape that is the scene of her life. The doctors can’t detect any physical illness, however, and the shrink can’t finally penetrate the interior of her mind. Nothing works. Her marriage turns colder. Friends whisper about her losing her mind. Yet though it makes her miserable, the illness also seems to make Carol aware of some structural defect in her bourgeois world.
“Do you smell fumes? Are you allergic to the 20th century?” reads a flyer at her gym. It seems to speak to her condition and promises restoration. Soon, Carol enters the domain of deep ecology and New Age spirituality, movements that understand that something is profoundly wrong with American modernity but that offer simplistic, hucksterish “cures” in response. We face a “disease-ridden future,” a TV ad warns, and the only recourse is to escape to safety.
It’s the flyer and ad that lead Carol to the New Mexico desert, to a commune called Wrenwood, which specializes in helping people suffering from something called multiple-chemical sensitivity. Many of the residents wear masks, and the safetyism with which we all became so familiar in the year 2020 seems to be the defining ethos at Wrenwood: no intimate encounters, no drinking or smoking, but let us find camaraderie in a shared commitment to absolute safety.
The commune director, Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), is himself HIV-positive and preaches a message of taking personal responsibility for the immune system. Peter leads the residents in prayers (“We are one with the Creator of the universe. . . . We are safe”), and teaches them that illness and death come to those with negative attitudes: “The only people who can make us sick are ourselves.”
Things are getting better out there in the dangerous outside world, thanks to “workplace sensitivity training” and “multiculturalism,” but meanwhile, the patients must avoid all risk, must remain at the center, and must avoid negative thoughts. When an elderly resident dies, Peter laments, “Let’s throw away every negative thought—I tried to teach him this” (the departed, it seems, didn’t listen to the sage, thus causing his own demise).
Carol seems happier at Wrenwood than back home in California, though her condition doesn’t seem to improve. It’s because she isn’t taking enough safety precautions, the center’s assistant director tells her: “If you’re feeling chemically sensitive, you really shouldn’t be outside.” Perhaps, Carol is told, she should take over the little desert igloo that the dead old man used to live in. “He was perfectly safe there as long as no one stepped inside!”
At the movie’s close, we leave Carol standing in front of a mirror in her little isolation pod, her face gaunt and deathly pale and grotesquely splotched, as she says to herself: “I love you. I really love you. I love you.”
The novel coronavirus is much more real than Carol’s allergy. Yet it is hard to avoid drawing parallels between our safetyist response to COVID and the safetyism portrayed in Safe (hence the renewed interest in the film over the past year). Much like COVID, Carol’s illness lays bare social and structural crises that predated her disease: material inequalities, “social distancing” between classes, loneliness and isolation. Yet modernity's “cure” for Carol's illness doubles down on the very conditions of emotional isolation that “led” to her disease. Similarly, our own safetyist attempts to eliminate all COVID risk have often gone beyond appropriate health precautions and ended up amplifying our social crises—creating greater inequalities between the laptop class and the working classes, and contributing to increased rates of loneliness, depression, and suicide in an already lonely society.
Carol begins the movie in an alienating gated community—and ends it even more alienated, eventually in a literal safety pod. Rather than face the social-structural crises head-on—crises rooted in our modern obsession with individual mastery and autonomy—the safetyist “cure” requires an even more aggressively individualistic vision. As Haynes himself told an interviewer in 2015, “isolation becomes the problem and the answer to the problem.”
Much of the Western world before the COVID pandemic carried on “at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything,” imagining “we would stay healthy in a world that was sick,” as Pope Francis put it in his extraordinary Urbi et Orbi address at the height of the pandemic last year. We think we have final mastery over our well-being—if only we work harder and and harder to “be safe.”
In his 2015 interview, Haynes didn’t put it in those terms, yet he got at the basic idea: “When we get a cold, we say, ‘I did this to myself.’ To me, it’s part of a free-market ideology that makes the individual feel that we control our world and our destiny, that social issues are not the factor, it’s up to us. . . . And it’s not just a left-right thing.”
Indeed. Welcome to Wrenwood.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post and author of The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos, out next month from Convergent Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
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