USA Great Britain (119 mi) 1995 d: Todd Haynes
A subversive horror film on everyday life with a nightmarish impact that creeps up on you, suggesting invisible toxins are all around us, where there’s little we can do to combat their sinister presence. Voted the best film of the 90’s in a poll by the Village Voice, still reeling from the residue of the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s, Haynes has made the ultimate satire on the health kick du jour, like the latest diet or self-help cure, viewed as just another fad in the Southern California atmosphere where fads are everything, creating an off-putting, anti-propaganda film that is in itself propaganda, becoming a mystifyingly weird comment on modern life in the San Fernando Valley in 1987. One of the few films given a contemporary setting, as most other Haynes films are period pieces, this most certainly can be considered a comment on our times, but the jury is still out on what exactly it intends to say. What it does do is create a baffling take on modern existence, as we are strangely cut off from each other, strangers in a strange land, so distanced from ourselves that we’re no longer able to even communicate how we feel. Much like Monica Vitti in Antonioni’s RED DESERT (1964), Carol White (Julianne Moore) is filled with doubt and existential dread about the surrounding world, disarmed and even disabled by its corrosive effects, where inexplicably the body reacts in horror to the unseen presence of toxins in the air, perhaps chemical pollutants, or other environmental effects, where the enemy is an invisible force from which there is no easy remedy. What this film does is elevate the debilitating physical effects, using a surreal electronic soundtrack from Ed Tomney including hovering helicopters and garbled conversations that couldn’t feel more eerie and disorienting, as if the world is closing in, offering the experience of horror throughout. Expanding on themes introduced in the middle section of his prior film Poison (1991), an allegory for the AIDS generation, this is given a broader context, turning this into a woman’s film, filtered through the living and breathing embodiment of Carol White, who more often than not comes across like the airhead Sissy Spacek in Altman’s 3 Women (1977), yet seemingly lives the idyllic life, mundane but affluent. Her immaculate house could make the cover of Architecture Digest, with a museum-like modern interior where nothing is out of place, creating a décors of perfection, yet it’s a completely sterile existence, like the white room at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The opening shot through the window of their Mercedes Benz reveals the upscale neighborhood, manicured lawns with electronic gates, a picture of the American Dream, as it caters exclusively to the white wealthy class, with no one out of place, keeping all the unwanted elements out, as the only non-white figures are landscapers, maids, or house painters, non-threatening people hired to make the lives of the owners that much easier. This is a Stepford Wives habitat, passive and submissive women whose every whim is catered to by a minority class, while she pampers herself in the latest styles in order to make herself beautiful and demure for the master of the house.
One of the more ferocious takes on the noxious air quality engulfing smog-ridden Los Angeles, the feeling that something is amiss is communicated almost immediately, as the first utterance from Carol as she steps out of the car is a brief sniffle. While there are no emotional signs of intimacy in her relatively aloof marriage to Greg (Xander Berkeley) and her stepson, she remains a stay-at-home wife, with indispensable help from her Hispanic maid, Fulvia (Martha Velez), where she has a habit of drinking a full glass of milk every day. Her day consists of ordinary routines, like gardening, taking clothes to the dry cleaners, or working out with other women in an aerobics class, with no full-fledged friendships, only casual acquaintances where she’s considered one of the girls. The first noticeable disturbance happens while driving behind a truck spewing exhaust fumes, causing her to cough uncontrollably, exaggerated into a hysterical fit that continues even after she exits into a parking garage, finally coming to a stop in a supposedly safe place. While she complains of headaches and constant fatigue, developing a nose bleed while getting a perm at a hair salon, then can’t breathe, having an uncontrollable asthma attack at a baby shower (one of the better staged scenes for all the decorative pastoral colors and overflowing hair styles, like a party of Barbie dolls), her dilemma is that no one will listen to her or believe her, especially her male doctor, thinking it’s all in her head, referring her for a psychological exam, which consists of a man behind a huge desk staring at her, waiting for her to say something significant. Carol isn’t really capable of explaining herself and instead spends her time apologizing all the time, where she’s well-mannered and polite to a fault. One of the funnier moments occurs after the husband gets ready for work, including deodorant and cologne, adding hairspray as a finishing touch, but when he reaches out to his wife, she vomits on the floor, as if she’s allergic to him. This is a mixed message that offers plenty of underlying implications, yet Haynes allows nothing definitive. Picking up a flyer, she starts attending a seminar for people afflicted with 20th century environmental illnesses, as if allergic to modern life, where she begins to repeat the catch phrases, as she comes to believe that a sofa she recently purchased is “totally toxic,” expressing this view with surprising surety. In fact, her mysterious ailment becomes her personal identity, what she believes in the most, becoming addicted to it, as it not just overwhelms her, but she becomes obsessed by her otherwise inexplicable descent into weakness and frailty, for which there is no remedy, leaving her ostracized from society, away from all the damaging influences, like everyday household chemicals, forced to live in a supposedly safe yet imprisoning environment. By blocking out all outside reality, one supposedly insulates oneself from worldly harm, but feels more like a retreat from life itself.
Watching an advertisement on television describing a refuge for people who are particularly sensitive to environmental pollutants, Carol packs her bags, hauling along her oxygen tank, making her way for the cleaner desert air of the Wrenwood Center in New Mexico, a new age haven treating those experiencing the harmful and invasive effects of what’s described as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). Her arrival is hilarious, as a woman wearing a surgical mask starts screaming at the taxi driver to turn around, as the car fumes are toxic, where it’s as if she was invaded by zombies. The fear and panic is something of a surprise, yet it feels contagious, as if all are afflicted by it, where many on the premises still wear surgical masks and carry oxygen tanks, so Wrenwood is apparently a work in progress. Similarly, the majority of those afflicted seem to be women, who dominate the patient count, though the founder of the center is Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), who is himself afflicted, described sympathetically as “He’s a chemically sensitive person with AIDS, so his perspective is incredibly vast.” After a stream of messages about the power of love and folk songs of inner peace, where a fabulous Kate Wolf song (an iconic West coast songwriter/musician who died tragically young from leukemia) becomes a self-healing mantra, Give Yourself to Love (Live) - Kate Wolf - YouTube (3:54), we quickly realize this place is little more than a brainwashed cult, where the self-help guru is a sham, living in a giant estate on a hill overlooking the puny cabins of the residents, but the patients are so desperate to believe in something, that they’re willing to buy in. Filled with empty platitudes and tearful group sessions, along with an cognitively unbalanced man running around in an alien space suit, “The only person that can make you sick is you,” the guru holds each and every patient responsible, which really amounts to blame, as if everyone is in charge of building up their own positive energy field that allows their debilitating immune systems to better combat invasive illnesses. While this is preposterous, this is actually one of the inspirations behind the film, as it comes from one of the best sellers of the time, Louise Hay’s The AIDS Book: Creating a Positive Approach, published in 1988, which professes the power of positive thinking, and according to Haynes (Todd Haynes by Alison MacLean - BOMB Magazine) “literally states that if we loved ourselves more we wouldn’t get sick with this illness...That’s scary.” Rather than getting better, Carol descends into immune failure, noticeably thinner, with lesions on her face, attached to her everpresent oxygen tank, eventually moving into a biologically secure, sealed-off existence in what amounts to her safe space, like living in a bubble, going to the extremes while pledging to love herself more. This is one of the strangest portraits of life in sunny Southern California, turning it into a rabidly polluted toxic zone, what amounts to a death trap, with wealthy blissed-out residents at their wits end searching to find the magical elixir for all that ails them. They may as well be searching for life on another planet. Or she could move to Vermont.