In a summer of heavyweight action movies and flyweight romantic comedies, I don’t think you’ll find a more provocative little number than Safe, which creeps under your skin like a rash. It’s about Carol (Short Cuts‘ Julianne Moore), an affluent suburban housewife who develops a severe allergic reaction to everything money can buy: The fabric of the new couches in her big house is making her dizzy; driving in Los Angeles traffic in her fancy car, she falls into fits of asthmatic wheezing. Her husband (Xander Berkeley) thinks it’s all in her pretty little head, but Carol knows something is wrong. (Moore, who costars with Hugh Grant in Nine Months later this summer, plays vacant, longing, dutiful women so movingly, you want to stroke her delicate wrists.) So she finds a support group for people like her: She’s got environmental illness, also called 20th-century-disease — an authentic immune disorder triggered by the chemicals, fragrances, and fumes of modernity and convenience. For a cure, she goes to Wrenwood, a New Mexico retreat for EI sufferers, where she can begin to feel safe again.
That’s where the really interesting creepiness begins. But it’s also where Safe begins to stumble in its own smog. Director Todd Haynes, who first unsettled audiences seven years ago by using Barbie-like dolls to make Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, tells this horror tale — that’s what it is — slowly, almost dreamily. I like that; there are moments, especially early on, when you can feel your own lungs constricting in empathy. (You’ll never be quite so comfortable at a hair salon again.) But once at Wrenwood, his focus blurs. A cultish motivational speaker (Peter Friedman) lectures on how to feel better but also makes his listeners feel worse. Carol, truly suffering (she carts around a sleek oxygen tank the way city girls carry bottles of Evian), begins to look and sound more and more mentally, as well as physically, ill. At times, you feel as if you’ve stumbled into a Michael Tolkin film — a world of sophisticates at the end of their spiritual tether. Is the outside world really deadly, or are these canaries really cuckoos? The movie ends abruptly, bleakly. Safe gets messy, but you won’t be able to wash it out of your system anytime soon. B+