Life’s A Big Hot Mess: ‘Safe’ In the Time of the Apocalypse

Life’s A Big Hot Mess: ‘Safe’ In the Time of the Apocalypse

Day 1

On Friday, word came from the top that my school was officially going to shut down. In-person classes were to be cancelled, while everyone scrambled to move affairs to a digital realm. For an academic, whose livelihood at this point ostensibly is based around the academy that I’m a part of, things had just gotten very real.

As the boss alluded to on Friday, most of the Western world should, and ostensibly is, going into some form of lockdown. Many of us are not used to working from home, and thus, are lacking routines so to speak. I’m a Virgo. I like routines, and structured days, and order. This, is a lot of disorder, and as someone with a history of mental health issues and high anxiety, right now is a bit of a scary time even if I’m not physically sick. To find some semblance of order will require immense discipline, self-determination, and positivity.

Or a blog, do you think a blog would work?

Here’s my idea: each day while under lockdown I will watch at least one feature film, and write about it. I’ll touch on other things that are happening around me like how I’m feeling mentally, what I’m working on (life goes on, and I’m presently trying to write a Masters Thesis), and general thoughts that I’m having about things. The best part about this is that if/when I do get sick, this blog can act as a living document for academics! The second-best part is that it might help keep me off social media, or at least, it’ll allow me to publicly flog myself for spending too much time on social media. My regular column is Big Hot Mess that comes out in intermittent intervals, but right now, Life Is A Big Hot Mess.

With that in mind, let’s be a total cliché and start with Todd Haynes’ Safe. For all intents and purposes, I’ve been meaning to re-watch the film for a couple of weeks now since I procured the Criterion blu-ray as part of the most recent flash sale. The current situation simply offers a hilariously ironic circumstance to do so.

Safe is a film that is difficult to properly reconcile with on first glance due to the complexities of its mise-en-scene. For the unware, mise-en-scene is a term referring to “everything in the frame.” Most frequently it is used to describe the composition of the frame and details that are in it. In the case of Safe, Haynes creates so much detail for not only the narrative space, but also the mindsets of his characters. Carol (Julianne Moore) is a housewife. She’s a stepmother to her husband Gregg’s son. She works as a homemaker, a fancy way of saying that she’s a stay-at-home Mom. Her world is one of perfect symmetry in highly suburban spaces.

It’s also one that is conceivably making her sick. To simplify Safe, the film’s premise is a character study of someone who has extreme chemical hyper-sensitivity. Milk particularly seems to give her a hard time, something that is both ironic in regards to her recognition that she is a total “milk-a-holic,” and may potentially symbolize an abstract rejection of her pre-ordained place in society. Haynes strives to make the suburban space seem as uncanny has he possibly can. There’s a brilliant shot early on in the film, where Carol goes to a neighbour’s house. Haynes pulls the camera back to the foot of the driveway, where the sheer size of the home blots out the frame. The alabaster marbling of the house’s exterior seem gauche.

Moments like this are reminiscent of Haynes attempts to make Carol’s world seem as pointedly plastic as possible. Another is the general colour palette of the film. The two dominant colours are a deep turquoise colour, and a light peach one. Both, seem fake. Neither is a base colour, and it can only be achieved by mixing lightening/darkeing pigments into base colours. These colours are indicative of a falseness.

This falseness is the world that Carol lives in. It’s conceivably what is making her sick. But that’s also the surface level read on the film. What Haynes is really focused on isn’t what is making Carol sick, but rather, why is she getting sick. What are the social conditions that seem to be hitting her. Smarter people than me have commented that the illness in Safe is likely a grander AIDS metaphor. I won’t dispute that. You could also probably make a pretty solid case that the film is about a rejection of the modern world. Carol’s awakening comes from her recognition of an advertisement that asks if one is suffering from an allergy to the 20th Century.

Which is what hits hard about Safe in this very moment in time. Safe is about isolation, and feeling disconnected from the people you should know and love. It could be caused by AIDS, rejection of modern living, mental health crises, you name it, but it acutely recognizes the despair of falling further into disconnection. What I find fascinating about today of all days is that I’m inside because it’s theoretically going to make others safe, and honestly that’s a good thing. But it’s also a major bummer, and has probably caused me at least one mini-panic attack since Saturday afternoon. As with all of Haynes’ films, it’s the emotions that hit hardest. I don’t think I could’ve watched this on Friday. It would’ve made physically ill in addition to crying harder than I already am.

This post was written by
Thomas Wishloff is currently an MA student at York University. He is new to the Toronto Film Scene, but has periodically written and podcasted for several now defunct ventures, and has probably commented on a forum with you at some point. The ex-Edmontonian has been known to enjoy a good board game, and claims to know the secret to the best popcorn in the world.
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