By David Sturm, Copyright 1996

Sometimes you feel a chill but aren't sure where it comes from. That's the experience of watching "Safe," written and directed by Todd Haynes.

The film seems banal at first, akin to a TV movie about a woman's strange-but-true disease ordeal. Then, it starts to steal along your spine.

Julianne Moore ("Nine Months") portrays Carol White, a buffed San Fernando Valley housewife whose life revolves around aerobics, dieting, and decorating. Every room in her house looks like a photo from an architecture magazine.

One day, she begins getting sick after exposure to "fumes" such as auto exhaust and hairdressing chemicals. At first it's coughing and nosebleeds, but it progresses to asthma attacks and seizures.

Husband and doctor are baffled, suspecting it's in her head. Her doctor recommends a psychiatrist.

Then, she hears about "environmental illness" and decides to enter a "toxic free" therapeutic community called Wrenwood for patients suffering from chemical intolerance. Wrenwood's New-Age-styled guru preaches self-love as a remedy.

Eventually, Carol's sensitivity forces her to enter an igloo-like dome at Wrenwood made of porcelain (it resembles an inverted toilet), where she seems to find happiness sealed off in a tiny, sterile cocoon.

Is this woman to be pitied or scorned? Haynes won't say--the film is opaque with regard to point of view. The dialogue conveys little information. Even Carol's climactic speech at her birthday party is barely coherent--shards of pep talk and therapy jargon.

What is the meaning of the black couch that is mistakenly delivered? Why is Carol always photographed to look like she's in a box? Is Wrenwood a cult? Are the "fumes" a metaphor for American culture?

When questions like these were put to the audience after a screening of "Safe" in London, the crowd erupted in arguments.

"Safe" comes after Haynes' three-episode "Poison" (1991), based on the writing of Jean Genet. He created a minor sensation in 1988 when he made "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story" using a Barbie doll for Karen and carving off pieces from Barbie to depict the ravages of anorexia. The Carpenter family had the movie suppressed.

With "Safe," Haynes has taken another huge artistic risk and pulled it off brilliantly. It will be recognized as one of the great films of the 1990s.

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