Want to watch Julianne Moore dissolve into a stumbling, bleeding corpse? Then Safe is for you. It’s about chemical sensitivity and how impossible it is to live with that condition in our consumerist society.Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) or Environmental Illness (EI) is basically where you seem to get sick for no reason… we are surrounded with so many low-grade poisons that sometimes people’s metabolisms just “give up” and start deteriorating. Like a violent allergy, everything with chemicals in it makes you sneeze, bleed, or vomit: bug spray, cleaners, perfume, soap. If you want to be an instant hypochondriac read Gathering Stories or The Wall of Personal Testimony which are a collections of accounts by people with MCS. Here’s the Google Directory on MCS. While watching this movie I came up with some thoughts about about chemical sensitivity and asthma, but also about a very basic problem with the current state of social activism… I do have some “spoilers” in there, so beware!
Julianne Moore plays “Carol,” a vacuous housewife of a wealthy San Fernando Valley businessman. She’s not all there… The whole first half of the movie is filled with scenes of incredible materialism as well as the characters using crazy volumes of hair care products and insecticides. Carol isn’t happy exactly, she kind of wanders around in a haze…
Then Carol starts getting sick for no reason. Her body just starts falling apart. She gets nose bleeds, vomits randomly, and has constant headaches.
Doctors essentially tell her it’s all in her mind… at one point a nurse sprays insecticide in her hospital room, about 30 seconds after she has almost choked on her own vomit, and the doctor acts like they are humoring her for taking the spray away.
Then Carol gets to the retreat in New Mexico… a place free of chemicals but filled with classes on meditation and people who want to hold your hand. I’m not sure if the creepy nature of the retreat is intentional on the part of the director, but it seems like it is.
As the story progresses, Carol gets worse and worse… the more she shields herself from the things she thinks make her sick, the sicker she seems to get.
At one point their leader (who lives in a giant house on the hill as everyone else lives in cabins) talks to them about how he envisions the future for the world outside the retreat, and among the features of this glorious utpoia are:
- no drugs
- no hate
- no promiscuous sex
During his speech I was thinking, what? What does this have to do with being sensitive to chemicals? You fucking flakes! Why don’t you focus on something constructive, like reforming controls on manufacturing or advocating consumer safety, rather than just making up bullshit to tell yourselves? Insane.
In another scene, everyone is in a group therapy session, and somehow the cult leader works in the rhetoric about how they are making themselves sick by harboring hatred. Again… what?!? I mean I understand holistic theories of health, and how being under stress can make you less healthy, but again, the insane amount of chemicals in our bodies might have more to do with your illness than just because you were in a snit one morning! Stay focussed people!
Eventually their leader says straight out that he refuses to read the news, because it is too negative. Basically, they are a cult.
Do these elements make Safe an unrealistic movie? Not at all. I can’t count how many times I have seen hippies talking about how the world would be so great if we all just loved each other, and then watched them seal themselves in a isolated world, unwilling to make any real changes in a society they see as flawed. Every year at Burning Man I hear someone tell me that BM is an utopia, as they conveniently ignore how all the food is brought in from outside, and how almost none of the citizens of Black Rock City are able to manufacture for themselves any of the products they consume there. The pattern is, you declare your safe reality bubble perfect, and then you never leave.
Why must we wrap a valid notion like chemical sensitivity in a bunch of silly rhetoric? It just makes it impossible for people who “don’t believe in it” to listen to the facts… New-agers stroking crystals endorsing a solution to a real problem is not good for its credibility.This problem is real, and it may only affect a few people today, but they are the canaries in the coal mine, and we are all running out of air. We are surrounded with poison! But when a bunch of flakes talk about how the problem can be solved with love, or by masturbating on trees, people who are more grounded in reality are going to stop listening.