In the summer of 1995, director Todd Haynes took a critical look at how mind-body medicine could be used to deceive and exploit those suffering from illness with his magnum opus, [Safe]. The film tells the story of Carol (Julianne Moore), an incomprehensibly uninteresting house wife who lives with her husband and his son in an opulent L.A. neighborhood during the late 1980’s. Things do get interesting, however, when Carol begins suffering from allergic reactions that do not appear to possess a tangible cause. Salvation appears to come in the form of Wrenwood, an alternative treatment center whose charismatic leader advocates seclusion and the needs for individuals to learn to love themselves. Carol travels to this compound in order to treat what appears untreatable, and soon falls under the spell of its patriarch and his subtly manipulative methods of “treatment”. Initially created as a criticism various new age health practitioners who exploited HIV/AIDS patients during the 1980’s, [Safe] is a chilling account of both the inherently mysterious nature of disease as well as the danger of relinquishing one’s autonomy to authority figures.
Authority, the ability to command and control others, is hugely important both in Anne Harrington’s discussion of “the power of suggestion” and [Safe]. For Harrington, the amount of control a practitioner has over their patients’ lives is at best troubling and at worst completely unethical. These ethical concerns with authority are exemplified in [Safe], as the film spends a great deal of time tracking the manner in which authority figures affect Carol’s life and mental state. Throughout most of the film’s first half, Carol is so weak willed and possesses such a stunted sense of self that she can barely speak a declarative sentence. This changes dramatically when she enters the authoritarian environment of the treatment compound, which forbids activities such as sexual conduct and even speaking at certain meals. It is in this environment that Carol begins to root her newly discovered personality, naively taking in the ideas of Wrenwood’s staff and leader without truly understanding any of them. This culminates in one of the film’s final scenes, where Carol gives a speech in front of an entire room of party goers about the need for the treatment center and its positive effect on its inhabitants. Essentially, her weak and stunted personality has been tailored by those in power to serve their own endeavors.
Another complex issue found in both The Cure Within and [Safe] is how disease is defined by the environment and culture that it operates within. Harrington’s example concerns the shift from defining certain symptoms as demonic possession to describing them as the result of a fluid imbalance as societal values changed. In [Safe], Carol’s definition of her condition corresponds to the society she decides to surround herself with. The symptoms of Carol’s condition remain generally stable throughout the film, with the anxiety they bring heightened by the film’s inclusion of stressful, ambient sounds to indicate their ominous nature. These symptoms are at first thought to be the result of a physically identifiable medical condition, and Carol seeks out mainstream medical practitioners accordingly. When Carol’s focus instead shifts to Wrenwood’s ideas, the symptoms instead become indicative of a problem with Carol’s world view and understanding of herself. The final scene of this film exemplifies this shift in perspective, as it shows Carol looking at herself in the mirror, attempting to improve her health by saying “I love you” over and over again. This scene is both an incredible depiction of an individual whose core idea of sickness has shifted with her environment, as well as deeply chilling finale to the film as a whole.
General Questions and Issues Raised By the Film
- How is illness defined? Who has the final say on this definition?
- How are treatments deemed to be viable?
- What is the effect of one’s mental state on their physical state, if those states can even be deemed separate?
- When, if ever, is it appropriate to relinquish one’s autonomy?
- When does medicine go from being “alternative” to “mainstream”?