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Is “Safe” all that concerned with the environment?

October 19, 2009
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Okay, so I’ve watched “Safe,” and I understand that it nominally centers on the protagonist’s belief that she is suffering from ‘Twentieth-Century Disease’ or multiple chemical sensitivity.  I get that the idea that our world can make us sick is terrifying, and I get that the fact we turned our world into this thing is scarier still.  Heck, that’s exactly the fear Rachel Carson capitalized on in calling chemicals “elixirs of death” (Carson qtd. in Kevles 80).  These are all things I understand and, for the most part, agree with.

I just don’t know if I can see that this terror is the terror underpinning the movie.  Personally, I think a stronger case can be made for psychological and identity issues being the primary story at play here.  More importantly, I think that the focus on these issues  nullifies the inherent terror of the protagonist’s disease.

I realize that this is a fairly big claim, and–to be honest–I’m still muddling through why I think it can and should be made.  Perhaps a usable way to approach it is to examine the circumstances under which the audience is introduced to the protagonist, Carol White.  The first time we see her face, or the representation of her physical identity, Carol is wearily staring over the shoulder of her husband as he unimaginatively ruts on top of her, and she gives him a perfunctory kiss on the cheek after he orgasms.  Neither appears notably dissatisfied with these performances, which leads us to assume that this is the status quo of their marital congress.  This is particularly troubling from Carol’s position in the marriage.  She is not an active partner in any of their couplings, just a body to be used for her husband’s pleasure.  In a sense, Carol has become a void beneath a veneer:  she takes part in the appearance, but not the substance.  Her identity is to have no identity.

This is the image Carol White loves.

Of course, the audience quickly finds out that Carol is a veritable master of all things vacuous.  Naturally, she conforms to the most obvious of Stepford requirements:  her yard is immaculately landscaped, her home beautifully decorated, and her beautician knows her full routine by heart.  Carol doesn’t even sweat when she exercises.  But even beyond this active cultivation, Carol’s only strong reactions to anything are to those relating to appearance.  For example, after she falls asleep at a dinner party, she keeps apologizing profusely to her husband, not the party, which implies her primary worry is in how it made him look.  Similarly, when listening to her son’s (in actuality, her step son–she is even fulfilling the appearance of mother) report on gang violence, she responds not to the racial assumptions he makes, but to the surface gore he depicts.

Basically, Carol has nothing and is nothing…until she gets sick (or thinks she gets sick).  Being sick gives Carol a nominal purpose to her life, but even in her sickness, she struggles to find substance.  At first, she is most interested in the various outward accoutrements of her illness (creating a safe room, learning about chemicals, etc.).  She slowly becomes more personally invested in it, moving from a person who has to rely on her husband to speak for her in a support group to a person who tells her doctor that “the chemicals, the chemicals” are causing her problems–even yelling at a nurse who sprays disinfectant near her.

In a way, Carol develops the appearance of agency as she advocates for her medical condition, insisting that there is something wrong beneath her outward appearance of health, and she does make an active decision to embark on a particularly radical course of self-treatment by becoming a long-term resident at Wrenwood, a new age facility for the chemically sensitive and/or immune deficient.  However, Carol largely holds herself apart from the introspective ‘treatment’ offered at Wrenwood, declining to even ponder ‘why she made herself sick.’  Interestingly, she seems to try to reclaim her health until the Wrenwood residents surprise her with a birthday cake–the only unsolicited interest Carol has received in the entire film.  Carol responds by delivering her only real substantial dialogue in the film, and it is a speech that lies neither in appearance, nor substance.  Carol seems to be trying to articulate a deeper idea through the use of surface sound bites, but they are strung together into near meaninglessness.  She seems, at this point, to be on a precipice of some sort of recovery…but, after she is escorted back to her safe house, she stands in front of a mirror, gazes at the image of her thoroughly ill self, and says, “I love you.  I really love you.”  It’s a creepy moment, and one can’t help but feel she’s not saying it to get better as another Wrenwood resident has done, but because she has finally received some positive attention.  It’s as if Carol is making the decision to stay in the Safe House for the rest of her life, as its previous resident had done.

So where was I going with that ramble?  I think the terror in this film is a psychological terror, not an environmental one.  There is very little evidence that environmental chemicals are actually making Carol ill anywhere in the film.  In the only scene that could possibly support her case for true organic illness, the scratch test scene, Carol does have a strong reaction after a long test with no results.  The reaction is dramatic and seems to indicate that yes, there really is something wrong with her, but we soon find that her reaction wasn’t to auto exhaust chemicals or any other one of her apparent triggers, but to milk, which she is shown drinking without any reaction.  It appears, then, that Carol’s own mind is tricking her into believing she is sick, and that the final scenes of the movie show her transitioning in her concept of her own identity.  If Carol was, before her sickness, a veneer over a void, she was a passive one, perhaps not realizing her own emptiness.  After her sickness, the transition is not one of filling the void with substance, but in taking a highly active role in perpetuating the veneer that is known to be a veneer.  Carol still doesn’t have meaning, but she gets a personal return when she is sick, and that makes her feel like she has meaning.  Therefore, she will take care to love Sick Carol and keep her from harm.  That’s all she’s got.

The idea of multiple chemical sensitivity is terrifying, and it is a factor that the film does play upon to create terror (those shots of Carol’s environments–both inside and outside spaces–are beautifully managed), but I think the primary fear perpetuated by the story is the fear of to what depths we can actively allow our own minds to fall.  Moreover, because Carol has such a strong psychological investment in her own illness, we cannot entirely believe that the environment is causing all her problems.  Therefore, if there was an environmental agenda at play in this film, the ambiguity created by the protagonist’s mental state severely undercuts it.

Kevles, Daniel J.  The Contested Earth:  Science, Equity & the Environment.  Daedalus, Spring 2008.  80-95.

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