Safe ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

There’s something wrong with Carol White - it’s a sneeze in the opening scene of the film, it’s the couch she meticulously picked out to match her house that comes in the wrong colour, it’s the way she doesn’t laugh at a sexist joke told over dinner - all these small ways she unwittingly disturbs the peace of her homemaker life. This wrongness is pervasive, and takes effect on her body, as if without her consent it begins to reject the manifestations of her suppression - after she gets a perm, her nose starts to bleed. Her husband embraces her, and she vomits.

Socially anaesthetised, all she can remember of a childhood room is the yellow wallpaper - this reference to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story is anything but incidental, as Carol’s illness is dismissed repeatedly by the men around her (her husband, doctors and psychiatrists) as being in her head. Carol is stripped of what little agency she has (the control she exerts over her home life) by her illness, by coughs that make her double over and struggle to breathe. At the same time, her illness, somewhat ironically, gives her a sense of purpose - discovering its cause and curing it. While Carol’s environmental disease can easily be read as a metaphor for a myriad of things (anxiety, depression, and AIDS, among others), Haynes seems less concerned with what is troubling Carol, but why it is, and to what effect. When halfway through the film she decides to go and live at Wrenwood, a New Age facility that promises to cure her affliction, she appears to gain some control of her fate - she will be with people who can validate her experiences and attempt to help her - she will no longer have to lie lifelessly underneath her husband during sex, or apologise to him for being unwell.

And yet, once arrived at Wrenwood, she is once again met with this idea that her illness, even to those who proclaim to be convinced of its existence, can only be cured from within. After having sat through an evening of motivational talk culminating in a group singalong that demanded she “give [her]self to love,” Carol finds herself outside alone at night, giving into sobs. This calls back to an earlier scene in which a somnambulant Carol is startled by a cop in her yard in the middle of the night - in her tears, in her distress, Carol is never left to her own thoughts, never allowed to begin to understand herself. The revelation comes quietly - no matter where she is, she can’t escape. Her illness is societal, has become subconscious, a part of her. At Wrenwood, her supposed safe haven, she is constantly monitored. People seem to know things about her without her having told them, she's asked to follow an ascetic code of conduct, and Lester, the terrifying figure on the poster, stalks the premises like a spectre, a violent tip-off that the solutions offered at Wrenwood are hardly solutions at all. She isn't free from patriarchal control, here, though she may be free from having to perform her femininity in previously expected ways (for example, she no longer wears makeup). She passes from being dominated by her husband, Greg, to being dominated by the co-founder of Wrenwood, Peter, and her body suffers the consequences - her illness in the first half reveals itself through vomit and panic attacks, and in the second half takes the form of the degradation of her body - her cheeks seem to hollow out, her skin becomes blotchy, unexplained cuts appear upon her face.

At the end of the film, Carol finds false liberation in confinement by giving into the mind-numbing rhetoric of the cult-like wellness retreat, exemplified by the rambling, empty speech she gives on her birthday. The ending of the film is stunning, as Carol enters the hermetic igloo-like cabin that promises ultimate levels of protection from the chemicals she's afraid of, and addresses the mirror/camera with a mantra she thinks will save her, but only locks her further into herself. She may finally be [safe], but she will never be free, and neither will we, the film suggests, as Carol looks straight at us, her mirror, and repeats “I love you. I love you. I love you.”

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