Tuesday, October 23, 2007

10/23: Safe; Fear of Fear

[This Alienated Housewife Double Feature is a contribution to the Double Bill-a-thon 2007 going on over at Broken Projector.]

Todd Haynes' Safe is a strange, unsettling, difficult picture, a film that wholly commits itself to a reality that is slightly off, slightly surreal, and yet utterly realistic in every observable way. Julianne Moore plays Carol, a suburban housewife with a rich businessman husband, a stepson, and a tremendous house with a maid and a constantly changing decor. Her life seems normal, if dull, until she begins inexplicably developing symptoms with no readily discernible medical cause. She coughs, vomits, gets nosebleeds and headaches, suffers from insomnia, all seemingly in reaction to the innocuous environment around her.

Haynes isolates Carol in her upper-class suburban world, keeping the camera almost always at a distance from her, staying primarily in long shots that position her as a lonely-looking figure in a vast space. Haynes pays especially careful attention to the gorgeously lit interiors of Carol's palatial home. Each room is a beautifully constructed tableau of light and color, often appearing empty until Carol sneaks into a corner of the frame or walks across the empty space. In one scene, she and her husband quietly argue in the bedroom, which is chopped up into sections like a geometric figure. A segmented mirror is opposite the bed, reflecting the two as they talk, their backs to each other. The mirror's reflection, with vertical lines running down at the seams, seems to trap the uncommunicative couple together like bars on a cell. The room, with its feminine pinks and teals, is offset to the right by a doorway through which we see another room, all lit in a darker midnight hue. The colors are rich and vibrant, but somehow stale, too perfectly calibrated, too artificial, not at all like a home with real living people in it. Virtually every interior space is carefully constructed in this way, a subtle arrangement of light and color that reflects the carefully ordered but fragile nature of Carol's mental state.

The home is truly a reflection of Carol, who occupies her largely empty time by creating designs and redecorating; throughout the film's first half, the house seems to be in a constant state of flux, with couches being delivered, the garden tended and redone, and the kitchen cabinets replaced or fixed. Carol is pouring herself into her fastidiously maintained home. At one point, when asked to describe her occupation, she starts to call herself a housewife, then amends it to homemaker — perhaps because she identifies more comfortably with her home than her husband? Carol's alienation from her environment, as emphasized by the distanced camerawork, is near-complete, and it's obvious that her developing symptoms are merely the external signs of a profound inner isolation. She is rejecting her very life, in the way that a body might reject an unsuitable organ transplant. Carol is not depicted as being unique — in her drab, lifeless conversations with friends and neighbors, these deeply bored women don't seem any more comfortable in their skins or happy in their environment — except that she is more sensitive than most to the numbing condition of everyday reality.

The film's depiction of suburban alienation, thus far, is incredibly striking and handled with an unrushed deliberateness that enhances Carol's increasing terror and illness, until she is entirely cut off from everything around her. But this kind of suburban angst tale ultimately isn't that unusual, and it's in the film's unsettling second half that Haynes starts truly departing into uncharted territory. The disconnected Carol, strung out and desperate for a cure by this point, stumbles upon an ad for a secluded retreat, Wrenwood, where "environmentally ill" people go to escape the "load" that common contaminants place upon their weakened systems. She departs for this hideaway, leaving her family and friends behind, in hopes of being cured of her unusual condition. What she winds up finding, though she doesn't quite seem to realize it, is simply another form of alienation, another form of isolation.

Wrenwood's method of treatment is oddly laidback and hands-off, and this section of the film functions as a deadpan parody that could refer to Christianity, New Age philosophy, triumphalist liberalism, or any combination of these. Its founder, Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman, subtly vacillating between earnest and creepy), offers a vacuous self-love philosophy that rests on a total blindness to the realities of the world and a repetitive insistence that everything is OK. The film itself offers plenty of hints that everything is not, in fact, OK with the world. The TV blasts news reports on assisted suicides, radio voices discuss religious fundamentalist politicians, there are constant references to factories dumping industrial waste in residential areas, and the specter of AIDS hangs heavy over the whole film even as a barely mentioned subtext. In this context, Peter's impassioned speech about all the good things he sees happening around him — the environmental movement, health food, self-help — seems limp, ineffectual, and naive. Moreover, he actively advocates disconnection from the world, and proudly admits that he no longer reads newspapers or receives news from the outside world. His proud disconnection fits in well with the group's ambiguous blend of real-world parallels. He could easily be a fundamentalist Christian rejecting all worldly things and waiting for Armageddon, or a New Age guru living in a private fantasy, or an ineffective Western liberal fighting small battles and leaving the largest problems un-addressed.

Haynes leaves pretty much all these options open, and the most unsettling thing about the film's second half is its almost total lack of authorial perspective. Whereas the first half very clearly mirrored Carol's increasing alienation in the stylized aesthetics of the house's interiors, Haynes steps back from such showy maneuvers after Carol's enrollment in Wrenwood. His style becomes objective in the extreme, largely eschewing both the alienating long shots and the occasional probing close-ups that characterized the first half's camerawork. The film confounds interpretation at every turn, constantly opening itself up into more and more potential meanings. What it comes down to is a broadly questioning critique of modern American society and the multitude of ways in which it pushes the individual into inaction, isolation, and confusion. This is a film where both the disease and its "cures" are revealed as facets of the same soul-crushing system.

Fassbinder's Fear of Fear is, like Safe, a dark rendering of a housewife's descent into madness as a result of the antiseptic isolation of her life. However, Fassbinder's film takes place on a much more personal level. Though Fassbinder frequently used Brechtian distancing techniques in his work, his depiction of the passionate but desperately lonely Margot (Margit Carstensen) veers in the opposite direction. Where Haynes fills his film with coldly calculated long-shots in which his heroine is a distant figure, Fassbinder zooms in for close-ups on Carstensen's expressive face — and not just close-ups, but tight, intimate, see-every-pore close-ups that chop off the top and bottom of her face to focus on her darting eyes and twisted mouth.

Margot is a tragic figure who seems to be simply too warm, too lively, for the smothering environment she's trapped in. She lives with her cold, passionless engineer husband (Ulrich Faulhaber), who seems to love her in his own quiet way but is utterly unaware of his wife's emotional nature. After they make love, she turns to him with a heartfelt look, seemingly about to express herself to him, but he obliviously begins blathering about a math professor he hates, staring at the ceiling while his wife disgustedly rolls away. Even worse are his mother and sister (Brigitte Mira and Irm Hermann, respectively), who live upstairs and despise Margot for representing a warmth and genuineness that they completely lack. In this repressive atmosphere, it's no wonder that Margot's increasing insanity — indicated, somewhat tritely, by eerie music and a wavery effect on the screen — is linked with a new sexual openness. She goes to the local pharmacist for both Valiums and affection, since he expresses his desire for her in a way her husband never does.

Another theme in the film is observation, and the gossipy spying of middle-class suburbia. There are frequent shots of Margot walking through the streets, going out for drugs or a tryst, from the perspective of an upper-story window where Hermann or Mira watches her. This is a tight-knit world, empty of any sort of relief for Margot, who like Carol in Safe can't seem to find anything worthwhile to do with herself. She bakes a never-ending series of cakes, and picks her daughter up from school, and otherwise her life offers her very little. Indeed, Fassbinder's film seems to be a prototype for the first half of Haynes' later work, encompassing many of the same scenes and images. There's the disinterested lovemaking, the visit to the doctor who says that everything is physically fine with her, and even the change of haircut in an attempt to use small measures to fix her mood. I would say, though, that Haynes' work takes the theme into incredibly interesting and complex territory, whereas this is a fairly minor and surprisingly conventional work from Fassbinder, though not without merit of its own. The scene where Margot, listening to music, glides back and forth across the frame in a very tight close-up, her distinctive face shifting from left to right, is a wonderful example of Fassbinder's skill with unusual and disarming framings. And Carstensen's performance as a whole is as stellar as ever, which is a very good thing since she spends so much time in extreme close-ups. For the most part, though, Fassbinder's distinctive style is subdued here, and his stylization of Margot's illness verges on cliche, so this is a distinctly minor entry in his large body of work.


DavidEhrenstein said...

A very good comparasion.

Todd is from the San Fernando Valley and there's a level on which the film is a personal nightmare expressing his fear of turning into a Valley Housewife. But prmarily it's a film that wants to give you AIDS,.

Metaphorically of course.

It's an attack on the "Feelgood" charlatans that popped up in the early years of the epidemic, particularly Louise Hay -- who preached that people got AIDS because they didn't "love themselves." She has, needless to say, vanished from the scene. Her primary student Marianne Williamson, however, remains -- thogh she's branched out into "Feelgood" religion away from the AIDS community.

gautam said...

A very powerful entry from you Ed! Your eye for detail and your skill at constructing a picture for the reader is admirable. Thank you for your excellent contribution, and surely I shall take up on your invitation to read your articles on Godard. Perhaps someone should do a Godard Blogathon - that'd be fantastic!

Marilyn said...

Safe is a personal favorite of mine, but I'm not familiar with Fear of Fear. Certainly a fascinating double bill. I wonder if you think there is anything particularly noteworthy about the fact that both directors are gay? I've certainly read a lot about the critique of AIDS cures in Safe but it seems, as David Ehrenstein mentions above, that there may be a housewife fantasy fear involved, too. Being trapped in a dull, conventional, STRAIGHT existence, perhaps?

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, all.

Marilyn: That's interesting, I hadn't thought much about Fassbinder's homosexuality in the context of Fear of Fear and its relationship to Safe. I think Haynes' film clearly does come from a specfically gay point of view -- not only the commentary on AIDS, but the creation of horror from out of the fabric of the "normal" life. The understated horror in the film is largely a fear of being trapped in the kind of existence that Carol has -- having to endure those robotic conversations with other housewives, an endless cycle of routine and boredom.

On reflection, I don't think Fear of Fear has the same gay subtext to it. The horror of Margot's environment has nothing to do with Fassbinder's sexual preference, and everything to do with the lack of warmth and emotion in the film's characters. I'm of the opinion that most of Fassbinder's films, even a lot of the ones usually thought of as "gay-themed," are actually more sexually neutral. What's important in his films is that the characters are searching for love and acceptance, and this is an experience common to everyone, regardless of their sexuality. Specific characters in Fassbinder's films may be gay or straight or bisexual or sexually ambiguous or just indifferent, but this is not so much the point. Haynes' film aims at larger socio-political points with its satire, and among the many possible interpretations it raises, the gay reading is perhaps the most pronounced.

Marilyn said...

Great response, Ed. I suppose it's easy to read "gay" into everything. I certainly think I did with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and its "unacceptable" love affair. But you're right about the universal search for acceptance. I'll be interested to see Fear of Fear some time soon.

DavidEhrenstein said...

What Fassbinder and Haynes have in common is that they are both gay filmmakers who are fine directors of actresses. Of course you don't have to be gay to know how to direct actresses (eg. Rivette, Sirk, Sternberg) but there's a certain socio-political perspective that gay men and straight women share Todd has a very close relationship with Julianne Moore (they call themselves "the twins") much as Fassbinder did with Margit Cartensen and Hanna Schygulla. But I think it ends there. Fear of Fear deals with middle-class German life in a way comeparable to that of the American films directed by Sirk that Fassbinder loevd so well, but at the same time its filled with details specific to Germany at the time the film was made. Plus the world's reaction to Fassbinder's heroine in this film is comparable in some ways to that of the family and their mother in Fear Eats the Soul. Safe is kind of a live action version of Superstar:The Karen Carpenter Story.