Todd Haynes: [Safe] Words

Todd Haynes’s sophomore feature [safe] tells the story of affluent Southern California housewife Carol White (played by Julianne Moore), and traces her physical decline from a mysterious environmental illness.  Exploring themes that have become hallmarks of Haynes’s auteurist style, [safe] uses conventions of traditional 1950s melodrama to examine individual identity (or lack thereof) and environmental repression. Throughout the film, Carol has difficulty expressing herself verbally and being understood by those around her, and this failure to communicate provides Moore’s performance with a sound-based symbolism that carries the film’s message.  Her inability verbally to communicate effectively is not only symptomatic of her lack of personal identity, but also indicates the failure of “traditional” domestic femininity and motherhood.

In film and television dialogue carries the burden of conveying narrative. Sound theorist Michel Chion suggests this stems from human’s biological and habitual tendency to focus aural attention on voices above other sounds in a given sonic environment. Intelligible dialogue is meant to convey information based on a common linguistic code; the importance of clear dialogue is stressed in all levels of the audio workflow– from the recording process to editing and mixing. Thus, the breakdown of verbal communication in [safe] not only creates conflict within the plot, but is also symptomatic of complications of individual character identity.  Carol White’s nebulous identity is exemplified through her vocal quality and verbal exchanges during the film, and her vocal frailty is ultimately pathologized in her diagnosis of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS).

The viewer watches Carol deteriorate physically over the course of the film. In a retrospective discussion about [safe], Haynes and Moore confirm that Carol’s illness is a bodily manifestation of her social oppression and repression. This deterioration is only amplified by her tenuous relationships.  For example, despite being cast in the domestic role of mother to Greg’s son Rory, Carol’s few interactions with her stepson are awkward and strained.  These are not for a lack of trying to connect on the part of Carol, but rather the complete inability to form a connection.  Similarly, when Carol and Greg are dining out with a few friends, one of the men tells a rude joke and the entire table laughs, save for Carol.  Her silence is noticed and taken as a pointed objection to the nature of the joke rather than an inability to create social connections.  Of course, the turning of the group’s attention toward Carol highlights her discomfort and her apology is more mouthed than spoken; she can’t deflect attention elsewhere, so she must make herself as insignificant as possible, represented in her moment of voicelessness.

The absence of stable ties to her environment make Carol “a perfect vessel for self-loathing,” as Moore says, and that her mysterious disease is viewed something self-inflicted. Carol’s unconscious self-destruction is inevitable due to her continued extreme passivity within her environment; she is victimised by her own lifestyle at the film’s start, and by the end it becomes clear that she is a symbolic victim of the heteropatriarchal culture that spawned her.

The body is the traditional site of female oppression in society, and it would follow that the voice then should be the outlet for a woman protagonist to establish her individual identity. However, in the film, the female voice carries with it a tradition of being manipulated throughout the production and post-production process.  Whether same-language vocal dubbing in post-production (as in Hitchcock’s Blackmail) or the separation of the female voice from a physical body as a narrative convention (as in Spike Jonze’ Her) the cinematic female voice is subjected to the same sort of scrutiny and curation as her physical form.

Moore capitalised on this vocal oppression by building the character of Carol around her vocal performance.  Describing Carol White as a “woman who doesn’t want to take up any space,” and “doesn’t have a voice,” Moore embodied that psychology by adopting a voice in which the character speaks while putting no stress on the larynx.  The result of her practice is a soft and breathy voice which serves to emphasise Carol’s lack of authority over her circumstances, and even her own body.  In addition to the quality of her voice, Moore adopted “California up speak” to further realise Carol’s absence of self-assurance and efficacy. Moore said that speaking this way is “almost like you can’t breathe.” In providing Carol with a trait that inhibits her necessary biological functions of inhaling and exhaling, Moore married the character’s psychology, physiology, and pathology.

The catalyst of Carol’s decline is when she discovers the new couches that have been delivered to her home are the wrong colour.  Carol promptly gets on the phone to correct the error, but is cut off several times by speakers on the other end of the call.  Her attempts to assert herself vocally are interrupted and even hung up on, implying the her lack of authority.  This failure to communicate with others outside her sphere of domesticity follows her as she goes to the furniture store and insists to the customer service representative “We wanted teal.  We ordered teal, but we received black.”  Even though the man indicates on her order form where she chose black, Carol refuses the idea because black couches do not fit the home’s aesthetic.  Not only is her authority over her domestic space challenged by being verbally overpowered, but in the scene in the furniture store it is negated entirely through the information presented in the dialogue.  After she leaves the store, Carol has her first medical episode; she succumbs to a severe coughing fit while driving.  While it is true that her pulmonary distress could be due to the fumes of the truck she was following, I recognise this as the first serious indication of Carol’s vocal oppression resulting in physical symptoms.  Rather than the excess of emotion and content that cannot be verbalised spilling out onto the mise-en-scene, it appears within Carol as actual illness.

Carol’s self-expression is fluent in internal monologue.  At the opening of a scene in her bedroom, Carol speaks (in voice over) the content of the letter she is writing to the New Age health group who may hold the answers to dealing with her illness.  When her husband enters the room to give her a message, her train of thought is interrupted.  She stares expressionless at him, and when asked what she is doing, she is unable to complete sentences.  In this scene, Haynes and Moore put Carol’s repression or entire lack of individual identity in plain view as she is faced with the environmental influences of suburban domesticity. The first fully formed thoughts she verbalises are laments indicating a cognitive break: “Oh God, what is this?  Where am I?  Right now?”  Her questions are met with’s Greg’s confused replies: “We’re in our house.  Greg and Carol’s house.” Indicating Greg’s role in reinforcing this domestic repression, referring to the home in the collective sense could indicate an equal conjugal partnership, by this point in the film the balance of power in the White family has been made clear, with Carol occupying the lowest rung.  Her body outwardly rejects the oppressiveness of her domestic circumstances, and her frail voice is psychosomatic evidence thereof.

Carol escapes her toxic suburban life in hopes of finding respite in the wide-open spaces of the Wrenwood recovery centre.  There are moments in which Carol’s verbal expression seems to be improving, and along with it her health and general demeanour.  However, the desired cure the audience has come to expect as a result of Carol’s relocation never comes to fruition.  Similar in effect to Munchausen Syndrome, her identity becomes tied to her illness and her condition ultimately becomes self-perpetuating.  Unfortunately for Carol, she is unable to make the conscious connection between her illness and her continued reliance on outside factors to serve as a structure from which she can hang her sense of self.

Despite being among other sufferers of the mysterious environmental illness, Carol is still isolated in her new home.  She inhabits an sparse structure shaped like an igloo just large enough for one.  Her illness continues to worsen and wreak havoc on her body until she must carry rely on an oxygen tank for respiratory relief.

Throughout the film Carol has been isolated in the frame through the use of wide shots and long takes.  The final scene begins similarly after Carol retreats into her bunker-like abode on the grounds of Wrenwood.  Once inside, she sits on the bed and takes a few deep inhales from her oxygen mask as the camera maintains a safe distance.  Then she turns toward the mirror and approaches it.  The camera moves in toward her face in close up to provide a view of her face, once doll-like and smooth, now a mask that shows the decaying effects of her disease.  Standing in front of the mirror, she whispers, faltering at first, “I love you.  I really love you.  I love you.”  What appears to be an act of self-affirmation ends up ringing hollow and leaving the audience unfulfilled.  The traditional intimacy that accompanies a close up shot of a protagonist is not found here; the camera observes a character that remains a stranger after being the focus of a two-hour narrative. Carol’s struggle to tell her reflection that she loves her signals a lack of both self-esteem and the creation/location of a personal identity.  Even while alone, she cannot verbalise an affirmation, so empty is her sense of self; she has been subsumed by her illness, as Moore says. Once again, playing with the melodramatic form, Todd Haynes refuses to provide the narrative resolution expected by the audience.

In the character of Carol White, Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore provide the audience with a curious dilemma; she’s the protagonist with which mainstream audiences are used to identifying, however, Carol lacks an identity herself and becomes an emblem – or, more pointedly, a “bearer of meaning,” ­– of the impossibility of June Cleaver-esque ideals of domestic and maternal perfection.  While Carol certainly embodies the victimised woman in classic melodrama, the audience is distanced through Haynes’s script, the cinematography, the production design, and of course Moore’s performance. Well known melodrama scholar, Linda Williams notes that films which adhere to melodramatic conventions provide a relatively “safe space” to touch on social issues without positing a resolution or presenting a “call to action.”  Haynes’s films are much more political in tone than the classic melodramas of the 1940s and 50s, but remains true to the lack of resolution, just choosing to foreground the tension and utilise pathos as a signifier of the given power structures.

The pathetic character of Carol is the personification of a problematic heteropatriarchy; she embodies a woman overpowered and victimised by 20th century American culture.  As is the case in his other works like Carol and Far From Heaven, Haynes examines contemporary themes of domestic repression in contemporary American life in [safe], while providing stark criticism of traditional domestic gender roles in Carol’s fate and the film’s open-ended conclusion.

by Brett Ashleigh

Brett is a queer femme from Durham, NC. She examines the sonic characterizations of marginalized bodies in film. She knows every word to The Princess Bride, is a sucker for Center Stage and Bring it On, and considers director Todd Haynes her spiritual soulmate.

She holds an MFA in Sound Design and an MA in Cinema Studies from Savannah College of Art and Design, and is pursuing a PhD in Communications from Simon Fraser University.

Find her at :@brettashleigh on Twitter, @brett.ashleigh on Instagram and on Soundcloud.

2 replies »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.