Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Safe (1995)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Safe (1995)

In director Todd Haynes' provocative and compelling medical drama, often interpreted as an AIDS allegory - a chilling, bleak, disturbing and provocative tale of a modern-day, environmentally-induced descent into madness; the film continually pondered the main ambiguous issue - was the disturbed female protagonist psychologically impaired or physically ill, or both?:

  • the opening sequence (a ride into a gated community filmed from a car seat) introduced the home of sexually-unfulfilled, affluent, zombie-like, vacuous and routinely-bored San Fernando Valley housewife Carol White (Julianne Moore) in 1987 - she was a "total milk-a-holic" who lived a life of complete pampering and luxury (without much responsibility or achievement) in suburbia with her bland husband Greg White (Xander Berkeley), a doctor; their first scene together was having sex - from an overhead view
  • in the aerobics class scene (exercising in a colorful outfit with other females in a mirrored room to Madonna's "Lucky Star"), Carol seemed isolated from the others, and in the locker room, as others talked about "emotional maintenance" and "stress management," she was complimented ("You do not sweat!" - a statement about her easy life); her only response was to smile broadly and not really socially engage; she could barely respond with the words: "I know it's true"
Aerobics Class

Mirrored Studio - Isolated

Locker Room: Carol Was Told: "You do not sweat!"
  • the onset of some physical and emotional difficulties began in the film with Carol's stressed annoyance at the delivery of two black couches for her living room; when she demanded a replacement, she claimed that she had ordered teal although the original order was for black; she insisted she was right: "That's impossible. It doesn't go with anything else we have" [Note: Later in the film, Carol insisted the fabric on the couches was toxic]
  • while driving, Carol trailed a truck in her car while listening to a talk-radio conversation about subjects such as the "end of the world" and President Ronald Reagan, she began to choke uncontrollably on copious exhaust fumes exuded from the truck; her coughing fit continued as she drove into a dark and claustrophobic underground parking garage
  • during lunch with her grieving friend Linda (Susan Norman), Carol was advised to start a "fruit diet" (the director's clear allusion to homosexuality, and the onset of AIDS) to naturally cleanse the body of toxins; Carol was uncertain and admitted: "I'm so run down lately," but began by ordering a fruit salad
  • Greg realized subtle changes in Carol and surmised that she was stressed out, tired or "overexerted" - Carol gradually became more and more detached and neurotic; but during a visit to her physician Dr. Hubbard (Steven Gilborn), he diagnosed nothing abnormal: "I really don't see anything wrong with you, Carol. I mean, outside of a slight rash and some congestion. I'll give you some ointment and some decongestant, but, uh, I don't know what else to do"; her doctor suspected that her new non-protein 'fruit diet' might be contributing to her ailments, and also ordered her to stay away from dairy products (after she said she was a milkaholic)
  • at her hair-salon after having a permanent and a manicure with her hairdresser (Janel Moloney), Carol began to experience an unexpected nose-bleed
  • after another visit to her doctor with her concerned husband, Carol was told she was "perfectly healthy" - however, he suggested that she had a "stress-related condition" that could be treated by a psychiatrist
  • it seemed that she was afflicted with an incurable, psycho-somatic, debilitating allergy or sensitivity to her threatening environment (various pollutants including paint fumes, cleaning materials, dry cleaning residue, car and truck exhaust, chemicals, poisons, deodorant, colognes, hairspray, high-energy wires, the ozone, sunshine, additives-preservatives, pesticides, etc.); she also suffered from stress about societal concerns (LA gangs, an increase in murders, and encroachment into the suburbs mentioned by her 10 year-old stepson Rory)
  • after taking her regular aerobics class in her health club, she approached a flyer asking: "Do you smell FUMES?" - with further questions such as: "Are you allergic to the 20th century?", "Do you have trouble breathing?", "Is your drinking water pure?", and "Do you suffer from skin irritations?"; the flyer advertised a meeting to explain about immunity disorders, known as 20th Century Disease
Carol's Phobia About the Environment

Carol in Health Club

Flyer: "Do you smell FUMES?"
  • with no relief from debilitating symptoms and allergic reactions, Carol began to attend psychotherapy sessions with a psychiatrist (John Apicella) who diagnosed that there were possibly issues internal to Carol that he needed to learn about
  • in the film's most memorable and unsettling scene, Carol experienced severe breathing difficulties at a baby shower for a pregnant friend Barbara (Wendy Gayle) attended by a group of wealthy housewives all wearing pastel dresses; as she sat by herself and watched the opening of presents, she became increasingly distraught and gasped for air while heavily wheezing
  • Carol viewed a video infomercial (advertised by the flyer) suggested that natural gas and car fumes (and other chemical exposures) were causing a never-ending set of ailments for many ordinary Americans, including headaches, fatigue, blackouts, seizures, and depression; it suggested these problems were the result of "environmental illness"; the main spokesperson persuasively asked: "Are you allergic to the 20th century?"
  • Carol was subjected to a series of allergen tests by specialist Dr. Reynolds (Peter Crombie) to determine which substances might be triggering her physical reactions, and in his office suffered a severe negative reaction to a milk substance: ("This is a big one, Carol. Milk's a biggie!")
  • at an informational seminar in an auditorium, Carol (with Greg) listened to a lecture by a speaker named Becky (Beth Grant) about creating a safe-space in their home: "The first thing you need to do in order to clear is create an oasis in which to live. Your oasis is your safe place. Your toxic-free zone where your load has been significantly reduced"; another audience member gave a testimonial about the benefits of toxic-free living in an expensive, New Mexico New Age center named Wrenwood; after the seminar, Carol was seen listening (via headphones) to one of the audio tapes sold there that spoke above safe alternatives (such as fasting followed by a rotational diet): ("Safe bodies need safe environments in which to live")
  • at her dry cleaners (that was being fumigated with pesticides when she entered), Carol suffered a complete collapse with convulsions in the front lobby and was whisked away in an ambulance; in the hospital, her doctor denied that the pesticide was the issue: "There's no way to prove this thing is an immune system breakdown, much less one based on environmental factors"
  • during her hospital stay, Carol listened to a commercial for Wrenwood Center, a non-profit desert residentiial community, health retreat, and environmental-illness treatment center (near Albuquerque, New Mexico) with 200 residents; its founder/author, HIV-positive Peter Dunning also suffered from "chemical sensitivity" and various immune disorders; it was described as "a safe haven for troubled times"
  • the second half of the film's sequences told about the vulnerable, anxious, fragile, vapid and self-effacing Carol retreating from life to be toxic-free; she chose to protect herself by escaping to Wrenwood
  • upon arrival, Carol was indoctrinated into Wrenwood's community rules delivered by its director Claire Fitzpatrick (Kate McGregor-Stewart): the breakfast and lunch meals were to be silent and split up by gender; there was to be no smoking, drinking or use of drugs, and sex was disallowed; at the center, everyone was dressed in pure cotton, only organic food and drink was served, and vehicles were prohibited; she was told to create an "oasis" (a toxic-free zone) - a safe place in which to live, and find self-realization
  • the center's founder was chemically-sensitive, opportunistic, fascistic yet smooth-talking, balding Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), whose first words to his patients was an attempt to humorously calm them from thinking he was 'duping' (or dunning) them of their money: "All right , if you'll all close your eyes, and pass your valuables to the front. No, no, come on"; Dunning advised the followers to adhere to his self-transformational approach, and had the self-help group repeat the wisdom of the daily mantra, uttered in the cult to help its members: "We are one with the power that created us. We are safe in it and all is well in our world"; a folk singer led the group in a guitar-accompanied song titled: "Give Yourself to Love"
  • at the end of her first day at Wrenwood, Carol experienced a complete nervous breakdown and crying fit, and was comforted by Claire, who urged Carol to repeat to herself a self-affirmation as a remedy: "I love you. I really love you"
  • a strange character at the Center was introduced - Lester (Rio Hackford), covered from head to toe and always viewed from a distance (the film's DVD cover and poster image, and its allegorical symbol); Dunning described him as: "Afraid to eat, afraid to breathe"
  • after complaining of outdoor fumes from a nearby highway, it was suggested to Carol that she move into a white igloo - a "controllable space"; it was a sterile, egg-like, hermetically-sealed igloo 'home' or "safe house" (ventilated and porcelain-lined); it was recently vacated when resident Nell's (Mary Carver) husband died

Group Lectures, Mantra Repetitions, and Singing

Self-Help Exercises and Therapy (Carol with Joyce (Jessica Harper))

Peter: "I transform that negative stimulus..."
  • Peter also lectured the inhabitants with more suggested rules about life - no newspapers, no TV news, and avoidance of the "media doom and gloom"; he spouted and emphasized his main message - the need to take individual responsibility for one's problems ("I transform that negative stimulus into something that will not do harm to me")
  • the film's ambiguous final image (with a soft hum in the background) was of the vulnerable, introspective, self-effacing, and completely-isolated Carol attempting to find elusive liberation through self-love, advised by Claire; she addressed her mirror image with "I love you... I really love you... I love you..." - the film's final words of dialogue before an abrupt cut to black) as the sole occupant of the dark igloo - a colorless and drab environment reminiscent of a bomb shelter; her retreat into isolation ultimately was no better than in her home in Los Angeles
Devastating Downbeat Ending

With Oxygen Tank In Her Reclusive "Igloo"

Before Her Mirror

"I love you...I really love you..."

Unfulfilling Sex with Husband Greg

Carol White (Julianne Moore) - Soft-Spoken, a Milkaholic

Carol Choking on Truck Exhaust

Isolated, Suburban Married Life

Carol's Unexpected Nosebleed at Hair Salon

In A Psychiatrist's Office

Carol's Breathing Attack at Baby Shower

Carol's Viewing of an Infomercial Video: Environmental Disease Video

Allergen Testing with Specialist Dr. Reynolds

Lecture-Seminar on Creating Safe, Toxic-Free Spaces

Carol's Safe Space in Her Home

After Collapse in Dry Cleaners Store - Taken Away in Ambulance to Hospital

Wrenwood Center - Video Commercial For a Safe Haven

Wrenwood Self-Help Guru-Leader Peter Dunning

Lester - Patient Always Seen at a Distance

Carol's Sterile White Igloo "Safe House"


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