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Camera Obscura 19.3 (2004) 124-154
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| Figure 1 |
Xander Berkeley and Julianne Moore as Greg and Carol White in Safe. Courtesy Killer Films
For me, the problem is always in content; we want to define the perspective of a film solely through its content, and not through its form.
No matter how much we desire, with Susan Sontag, to resist treating illness as metaphor, illness is metaphor.
Released in 1995, Safe (US/UK) seems in many ways radically different from Todd Haynes's earlier work. On one level, the film is a forward-moving story about the increasingly debilitating, unidentified illness of a middle-class, suburban homemaker. Devoid of flashbacks or more avant-garde techniques of narrative disruption or interruption, the film's structure appears deceptively straightforward. Attempting to find a cure for her disease, the central protagonist, Carol White (Julianne Moore), commences a journey that takes her away from her comfortable domestic environs in Los Angeles to a retreat in the desert of New Mexico, where she submits to various New Age-inspired therapies. Despite its apparently conventional content and form, Safe confounded critics with its polysemic [End Page 125] openness to multiple interpretations and its refusal to offer audiences any insight into the central protagonist's experience or emotional life.1 These responses are symptomatic of the film's deployment of seemingly contradictory modes of filmmaking. Safe regularly employs a distanced style of cinematography while constructing sequences that deploy editing techniques ordinarily used to suture viewers into the narrative. The effect of this combination is to withhold the identification with character that such classical techniques conventionally secure, while at the same time foregrounding their usual ideological effects.
Formally unsettling, Safe has also been difficult to place in terms of Haynes's oeuvre, since it lacks both explicitly gay-oriented content (except for occasional references to AIDS that function as scene-setting coordinates) and his trademark experimentations with genre. Haynes, however, has suggested a strong connection between his earlier films and Safe: "I knew I wanted to go about some of the same, or related, experiments with those genres, but in a less overt way—less in-your-face. I wanted to do some similar things that I did with Poison [US, 1991], but very, very quietly."2 There are several moments in the film where the use of a particular cinematographic technique signals the continuity of Haynes's intentions in relation to genre more specifically. One such moment occurs when Carol arrives home in the evening after having attended a meeting about "environmental illness," a disease characterized as a hypersensitivity to industrial chemicals and emissions. Carol walks into the lounge and then pauses, her back to the camera. As she stands in the middle of the room, the camera performs a barely noticeable maneuver, tracking backward while zooming in. In this quiet moment, domestic space—and the female protagonist's place within it—is subtly altered. This kind of spatial adjustment, achieved via cinematography and mise-en-scène, points to the way in which the film's treatment of narrative space is key to understanding Haynes's larger cinematic project. As in his earlier films, Safe redirects a conservative genre and presses it into the service of nonnormative aims and outcomes. Unmarked by the kinds of explicit experimentation and parody evident in Superstar (US, 1987) and Poison, Safe nonetheless [End Page 126] perverts the cinematic spatial arrangements typical of the Hollywood heterosexual romance.3 Heterosexually orthodox, the love story promises the satisfaction of the inner desires of the main characters whose identities are secured in pursuit of this narrative end. With the white female-male couple united safely in love, there is no story left to tell. By testing and transforming the limits of romantic melodrama, Haynes exposes the ideological terrain of this apparently risk-free ending. Haynes's reworking of genre suggests an alternative view of identity and desire, one recognizing that the attempt to secure...