We are one with the power that created us.
We are safe.
And all is well in our world.
–Todd Haynes, director of Safe
In the film Safe (1995), a postmodern melodrama, director Todd Haynes depicts the bourgeois white identity as an inherently unstable and malleable performative identity formation. Moreover, Haynes thematically and visually destabilizes the threshold between interiority and exteriority – thresholds like the fence that surrounds the protagonist’s home, the arbitrary boundary that separates people of different socioeconomic groups, and even the protagonist Carol White’s (Julianne Moore) skin that would separate her psychological make-up from her physiological interactions with her environment. These destabilized boundaries render, in many cases, the outside in; that is, physical bodies, in Safe, are treated not only as some manifestation of psychic interiority, but they are also treated as if they are a subject’s interior. Because of this conflation, the film’s protagonist Carol White, for example, is physically interpolated by the space that surrounds her.
Carol’s reaction to this type of interpolation prompts her to move from the suburban, domestic space in San Fernando Valley, California, a space where she is subject to the surveillance of a series of ideological agents – her husband, her doctor, her psychiatrist, and so on – to the more rural area of Wrenwood. Wrenwood, although established upon a different ideological paradigm, operates with the same general ideological mechanisms, and, thus, ideologically functions in much the same was as suburbia, only with different ideological goals and values. Accordingly, Carol’s identity – in both its psychological interiority and physical expression – shifts to match the ideological framework of Wrenwood.
Haynes thematically and visually teases out the parallel structures of these ideological apparatuses while Carol continually and increasingly subjects herself to their prescriptive ideological function. Roddey Reid notes that “the resulting tension between affective investment and uncertain knowledge constitutes the cinematic experience through which Safe intervenes in the contemporary U. S. discourses of health and risk that are currently configuring our bodies and the spaces they occupy.” I would modify Reid’s claim by noting that, in several instances, Carol’s body is configured by the space she occupies, while the spaces that surround her body are ideologically predetermined to integrate “U.S. discourses of health and risk” into a preexisting framework that would use such concerns for ideological purposes. That is, in Safe, space itself performs and ideological function in interpolating Carol’s identity to fit the body that the space demands. With this in mind, I will here consider and interweave three theoretical strands in Safe: 1) the relationship of interiority and exteriority, between the body and the subjective Self; 2) the ways that space regulates performative identity formations; and 3) the function of surveillance in regulating the boundaries of space, and thus of the identity.
I will begin by examining the ways Carol’s interiority and exteriority are conflated in Safe and will follow this with a discussion of the ideological effects of space as it simultaneously treats a subject’s interiority and exteriority. Moreover, drawing particularly from Lacan’s theories on the “mirror stage” of human development, I highlight the importance of a subject’s physical exteriority as it affects her psychic make-up.
“Toward Viruses, Cells, and One Another”: Exteriority Is Interiority
In Safe, upper-middle class, white, suburban “housew…homemaker” Carol White slowly, physically degenerates even as she believes she increasingly psychologically heals. A barely pathetic protagonist, Carol begins as a stereotypical suburban mom and ends as a sort of pseudo-religious hysteric. Despite the appearance of a drastic change, however, Carol’s identity remains as white, monochromatic, and blank as her name. In this sense, Carol allegorically represents the blank nature of the body as representative of the subjective Self; of the ways identity is projected onto and stylized by the body; and of the ways the body is made to represent interiority. As if to highlight the unstable nature and arbitrary relationship between a subject’s interiority and exteriority, Carol subjects herself to two separate and distinct, but nevertheless parallel, ideological institutions: the suburban family and the New Age religious camp. From one to the other – from suburban home to spiritual retreat – Carol is increasingly interpolated by a series of agents of ideological apparatuses – the husband, the doctor, the psychiatrist, the New Age spiritual healer, and so on.
In Homo Sacer, Giorgio Agamben writes that “[t]his feeling of identity between self and body…will therefore never allow those who wish to begin with it to rediscover, in the depths of this unity, the duality of a free spirit that struggles against the body to which it is chained. On the contrary, for such people, the whole of the spirit’s essence lies in the fact that it is chained to the body,” and that “[l]ike the concepts of sex and sexuality, the concept of the ‘body’ too is always already caught in a deployment of power.” While Agamben is certainly not the first to explore the relationship of the body and the regulation of power, his spin is a good one: that the ideological fantasy of the “spirit’s essence” and its relationship to the body necessarily renders the body, and thus the “spirit’s essence,” subject to the “deployment of power.”
So, too, is the case for Carol White. Early in the film, we see Carol driving home, listening to (as she often does) spiritual programs that cast the exterior as a manifestation of the exterior. On this drive, she gets caught behind an industrial truck that emits dark clouds of exhaust. Carol’s stifled coughs quickly turn to wheezing hyperventilation as her irritation turns to panic. Haynes accentuates Carol’s reaction by alternating between close shots of Carol coughing and point-of-view shots from Carol’s perspective that depict her nervous rush to stop the car in a garage. This scene is overlaid with the sounds of squealing tires. The overwhelming, cumulative effect is one that conveys and bolsters the anxiety of the situation. The connection between the coughing and panic, the spiritual radio message and the freeway exhaust, is a tricky one. We are initially invited to interpret Carol’s panic as a reaction to her cough and her cough as a reaction to the exhaust. While this may certainly be the case, this instance of panic is also preceded by a spiritual message – one that bolsters the fantasy of the “spirit’s essence” as being chained to the body. This scene ends with Carol choosing a parking spot a fair distance away from any other parked car in the garage, suggesting that perhaps the need to stop wasn’t strong enough to prompt Carol to take the first opportunity; and the wide angle, long distance shot that centers Carol beside her car highlights the distance between her and any other parked car. At this point in the film, we already see Carol begin to associate physiological reactions to external stimuli (in this case, the exhaust) with spiritual admonishments (the radio program); thus, her physiological responses and psychological states are linked.
Later, we see Carol drifting in and out of sleep on the couch in front of the television (a recurring scenario in the first half of the film) while an alternative medicine commercial is playing. The commercial for “deep ecology” discusses an individual’s relationship “towards viruses, cells, and one another.” Bodies are cast as highly penetrable membranes between the interior self and the external environment. Moreover, membranes that separate one’s own body from other bodies is subject to scrutiny and presented as another dangerous space. Along these lines, Carol begins to interpret her “chemical sensitivity” as indicative of an internal crisis of sorts. That is, although her allergic reactions are continually interpreted by her husband Gary and her doctors as psychosomatic responses to stress, they become increasingly psycho-reactive; thus, I would argue, what may begin as a truly physiological reaction to an environmental irritant becomes increasingly linked to Carol’s psyche. In this way does her sickness facilitate the conflation of her body with her psyche.
Not long after this scene, we see Carol spontaneously decide to get a perm during her trip to the beauty salon. Her decision to alter her appearance is unpremeditated, but nevertheless a significant gesture. If, at this point in the film, Carol conflates her appearance with her pscyhe, then her decision to alter her appearance may foreshadow the alteration of her Self. This exterior attempt to alter her interior – a change that is enacted from the outside in – triggers another “reaction.” The chemical agents that cause the hair to curl trigger, or so we are invited to believe, a nosebleed; the nosebleed triggers another bout of hysterical panic, and Carol’s psycho-reactive responses to external stimuli are bolstered. Additionally, the morning after getting her perm, Carol and Greg embrace, Carol begins to shudder and spasm as though she is weeping, and violently pushes Greg away before vomiting on the floor. As Laura Christian notes, and in Kristeva’s terms, the abject – in this case, the vomit – destabilizes “the boundary between ‘inside’ and ‘outside.’” In fact, I would argue, the vomit is the inside and the outside. Carol’s reaction, again, conflates the two.
Later, while eating cake and ice cream at a baby shower, Carol is confronted by a friend, and Carol confesses, “I’ve been just feeling a little under the weather.” The two return to the living room where the host of the party announces the opening of the “big present.” Carol separates and marginalizes herself from the group, holding the only child present at the shower in her lap. Seemingly, in response to the child, Carol has another “reaction” that triggers another fit of hyperventilation and panic. Carol has associated these bouts of hysteria to environmental stimuli that provoke physiological responses, and these stimuli are psychologically situated in such a way that Carol’s reactions become “psycho-reactive.” This, I would argue, is again the case in this scene. Later, during a visit to an allergy specialist, Carol has an allergic reaction – coupled with wheezing and mild panic – to milk. As she has already confessed her “milkaholic” tendencies to her family physician, we might conclude that Carol’s “chemical sensitivity” is nothing more than a severe dairy allergy. Along these lines, it would make sense that cake and ice cream could trigger another reaction at the baby shower. Whether or not this is the case – and whether or not Haynes is subtly inviting us to interpret it as such – Carol clearly associates the reaction with an environmental stimulus – perhaps the child she was holding when the reaction began.
As Carol’s condition becomes increasingly psycho-reactive, and as she continues to internalize her allergic reactions as indicative of psychological or spiritual illness, the physiological responses to her “disease” continue to manifest, seemingly without environmental prompting. Towards the end of the film, Carol has gone beyond physiologically “reacting” to environmental irritants, beyond interpreting and internalizing her reactions as indicative of her psychological and spiritual well-being, and, instead, manifests physical reactions without clear external stimuli. To be specific, by the end of her film, during her stay at Wrenwood, Carol has developed a sore or bruise on her forehead, her eyes are sunken and hollow, and her face and skin are pale, sickly, and “washed out” – an enormous contrast from the Carol we first encounter at the film’s beginning. Most importantly, no environmental agent is presented as being a cause for Carol’s symptoms, rather, Carol’s symptom’s have truly become psychosomatic.
Carol’s physical and psychological transformation is enabled by the ideological paradigm of Wrenwood. As Susan Potter notes, Peter (Peter Friedman) encourages Wrenwood visitors to associate their external conditions to the internal psyches. “What you are seeing on the outside is a reflection of what you feel within,” Peter claims. Thus, in Potter’s words, “in a healthful state there are no boundaries between the external positive reality and the individual’s inner consciousness.” This breakdown of boundaries between the subject’s “external positive reality” and “inner consciousness” renders the subject physically susceptible to ideologically-informed psychological suggestions.
Carol at Camp: The Ideological Function of Wrenwood
Potter also notes that “all of Carol’s symptoms are configured as crises of space. Many of her bodily symptoms can be read as physical reactions to social confinement and implied surveillance.” While I would locate Carol’s symptoms as being tied up in issues of space and surveillance, I would argue that her symptomatic expressions of confinement are codeterminant with the association of physical symptoms with her psychological make-up. The spaces that interpolate Carol’s body and identity into new ideological paradigms can only do such by enforcing a stylization and articulation of the body upon Carol that must necessarily be internalized as psychologically determined. Space, I would argue, functions as a stage, a theatre, that enacts its part upon its players. The most monochromatic character, and the most malleable of bodies in Safe, Carol White is thus necessarily the allegorical figure for the ways that space can function within ideological frameworks.
As Judith Butler asserts, gender “an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts,” is internalized via ritualistic, societally regulated acts. We might extend this claim to apply to the performative nature of identity in general. In Carol’s case, her upper class, suburban neighborhood and her later residence at Wrenwood both demand a type of body stylization that matches the ideological, psychological framework that it imposes upon its residents. Agamben notes that “[t]he state of exception is thus not so much a spatiotemporal suspension as a complex topological figure in which not only the exception and the rule but also the state of nature and law, outside and inside, pass through one another.” In the former case, that of her suburban home, “exception and the rule…the state of nature and law, outside and inside, pass through one another” fairly fluidly. While Carol’s stepson Rory (Chauncey Leopardi) reads his essay on the problem of black and Chicano gangs infiltrating suburban American, the white’s Latina maid quietly hovers in the background, occasionally entering the dining room to serve their meal. While the parameter of their immaculate house is surrounded by a gated fence, the White’s home is a highly penetrable and barely private. And even while Carol herself attempts to purge her body of toxins – or her “load” – she does so, in part, by putting other chemicals into her body – medications, “bottled” oxygen, and so on. Although these instances are fairly minor examples of what Agamben proposes, they mirror and highlight the theme of both the film’s and Agamben’s concern: the arbitrary and constructed nature of boundaries between interior and exterior space – of the ways the two “pass through one another.”
Haynes’ cinematographic approach in rendering Carol subject to spatial boundaries is such that Carol is typically “hemmed in” by her surroundings. In her home, a place that should function as a domestic space that affords Carol some degree of agency, Carol is often depicted as part of a cluttered and tight space. So, too, when Carol is in the public domain, she is tightly framed by both the tight camera shot and her surroundings. In this sense, Carol’s environment circumscribes and “traps” her; moreover, and along these lines, both interior and exterior boundaries have much the same effect on Carol, and, thus, “pass through one another.”
Timothy W. Luke notes that the term “environment” has linguistic roots that justify the deliberate circumscribing of both public and personal spaces: "In its original sense, which is borrowed by English from Old French, an environment is an action resulting from, or the state of being produced by a verb: “to environ.” And environing as a verb is, in fact, a type of strategic action. To environ is to encircle, encompass, envelope, or enclose. It is the physical activity of surrounding, circumscribing, or ringing around something. Its uses even suggest stationing guards around, thronging with hostile intent, or standing watch over some person or place. To environ a site or a subject is to beset, beleaguer, or besiege that place or person."
Along these lines, and as I have written elsewhere, “an environment is a deliberately enclosed space, subject to surveillance and supervision, and, by virtue of being, it is also subject the ideological apparatuses that govern it.”
More importantly, the size of the space determines the degree to which it must be “environed.” On one hand, larger spaces thus have larger threshold, larger thresholds are more difficult to monitor and regulate, and, thus, the larger the space, the more permeable the threshold that separates its interiority and exteriority. On the other hand, larger spaces also provide more room and opportunities for hostile agents to be contained therein, thus larger spaces are more subject to an externally enforced system of regulation. For example, Carol’s large suburban home is a potential chemical battlefield – in virtually any section of her home, there exists threat of Carol being exposed to an environmental, “reaction”-provoking, chemical agent. In this way is Carol’s home a highly penetrable and, thus, dangerous space. At Wrenwood, a larger and more open space, Carol initially operates under the assumption that Wrenwood is a chemically “safe” zone; however, after discovering that Wrewood isn’t actually located far from a freeway, she move into the smallest and most enclosed space she can find: a small, white, porcelain-lined igloo. This igloo has the smallest, most easily monitored, and least penetrable threshold of any of Carol’s exterior spaces but one – her own body.
In a couple scenes at Wrenwood, we see an odd figure – Lester (Rio Hackford) – in the distance, dressed in a monochromatic, reflective, “safe” suit. The suit is skin tight and seemingly seamlessly covers Lester’s entire body and head. Considering Carol’s trajectory – from suburbia, to Wrenwood, to the igloo – we might assume that Lester represents the next logical step in creating a smaller and more enclosed space. According to Peter, “Lester is just…very, very afraid. Afraid to eat, afraid to breathe.” In Lester, we see an attempt to recreate the boundary between physical exteriority and psychological interiority, and perhaps the suit does provide a more fixed threshold between what is outside and inside the body; however, visually, Lester has ceased to identify as a human with a psychological comportment. Lester is the suit. In this way is Lester’s exterior written onto and interpreted as his interior.
If Carol’s physical exteriority – her body – is conflated with her psychological interiority, and if her body is subject to both the physical and ideological parameters of her immediate physical environment, the most efficient way to interpolate Carol into a new ideological framework is thus to change the parameters of her environment. The shift from suburbia to Wrenwood, then, is not only a physical one, but also an ideological one. And, while the governing ideological paradigms between San Fernando Valley and Wrenwood are certainly different, both are enacted by similar techniques – particularly via the surveillance enacted by agents of ideological apparatus (the doctor in the hospital, the psychiatrist in his office, Peter at Wrenwood, and so on).
That Carol is continual forced into situations wherein she is interrogated by voices of institutional power renders her continually subject to the ideology of the apparatuses that would interpolate her. At her husband’s prompting, Carol first goes to her family physician, who, after a medical and personal interrogation, pronounces her healthy. After a second visit, the same doctor suggests, largely to Greg (Xander Berkeley), that Carol see a psychiatrist. At the scene of the psychiatrist’s, Carol, sitting rather than lying on the psychiatric couch, responds to the psychiatrist by giving him what she expects of her expectations – a moment in therapy that Lacan calls “che vuoi?,” “what do you want from me?,” or as Zizek explains it “Why am I what you [the big Other] are saying that I am?” In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the moment of che vuoi reveals more than what the subject would say, but rather what the subject expects her other to expect. That is, at the point of che vuoi, Carol articulates her fragmented and unstable identity formation under the assumption that, first, it’s what the Other (in this case, the psychiatrist) expects, and, second, that he already knows her identity is fragmented and unstable.
Wrenwood’s founder Peter, urges Wrenwood “guests” to consider the psychological components of their environmental disorders. In an attempt to fill the fissure between the psyche and the body, Peter thus conflates the two. More importantly, Peter regularly interrogates Wrenwood guests, and he, unlike the psychiatrist, makes his expectations clear: he expects the guests to interpret their symptoms as manifestations of psychological or spiritual sickness. Nevertheless, in placing himself as an interrogator, father figure, and spiritual leader, Peter also places himself in position to function as an Other for the guests. For example, during a small group meeting, Peter questions a handful of Wrenwood guests, asking them to confess why they got sick. In so doing, he continually links their illnesses to psychological conditions. One guest, Steve (Brandon Cruz), gets sick because of his drug addiction. He turned to drugs, he confesses as Peter questions him, because he wanted to “blot out the pain.” He felt pain, Peter extrapolates, because he hates himself…and so on. Another member gets sick out of guilt, thus punishes herself with sickness. And another was “deeply wounded as a child,” repressed the wound, and got sick to let herself know something was wrong. Peter responds to this guest by prompting her with “and the person that hurt you the most…” “Was me,” she answers. “For,” Peter continues. “Not forgiving him.” And, as if to blame a child for her own molestation, Peter finishes “the only person who can make you sick is you….”
In this example, in rendering a verbal confession from each guest, Peter instills the ideological paradigm of the camp: that the body and the self are one in the same, and that the only way to change the body is to change the mind. Conversely, Peter also asks guests to internalize their symptoms along with his ideological aim. That is, the physiological symptom becomes integrated into the guests psyche even as it is interpreted as having come from the psyche in the first place. As Agamben notes, “One of the essential characteristics of modern biopolitics (which will continue to increase in our century) is its constant need to redefine the threshold in life that distinguishes and separates what is inside from what is outside.” In the case of Wrenwood’s guests, the threshold that “separates what is inside from what is outside” is not only redefined, it is nearly erased.
“Camp” Wrenwood, then, is a place where the subjects’ preexisting panic is used to maintain a “state of exception” that continually justifies the need for surveillance and confession, for boundary regulation, and for identity interpolation. Agamben asserts: "The camp is the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule. In the camp, the state of exception, which was essentially a temporary suspension of the rule of law on the basis of a factual state of danger, is now given a permanent spatial arrangement, which as such nevertheless remains outside the normal order." (original italics)
Wrenwood, a “permanent spatial arrangement” of the “suspension of the rule of law on the basis of a factual state of danger,” thus functions as an ideological apparatus, a space that transforms subjects by interpolating them into new identity formations. More importantly, by conflating the subject’s interior and exterior, Wrenwood treats the subject’s body in order to interpolate her psyche. As the body is transformed, the body’s image is reflected and projected back on the subject.
“Her Hair Looks Good, But Her Skin Looks So…”:
Carol in “The Mirror Stage”
In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan writes “You never look at me from the place from which I see you” and “what I look at is never what I wish to see” (original italics). Elsewhere, Lacan writes of the mirror stage as follows: "It suffices to understand the mirror stage in this context as an identification, in the full sense analysis gives to the term: namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes [assume] an image – an image that is seemingly predestined to have an effect at this phase, as witnessed by the use in analytical theory of antiquity’s term, 'imago.'” (original italics)
Along these lines, a subject’s visible representation – her image – is something that she not only projects, but that she also receives. In the strictest sense, Lacan’s “Mirror Stage” represents a stage in human development wherein an infant, usually held by the mother or supported or propped up by some other prosthetic, sees his image in a mirror and realizes the separation of his self from his environment. However, and this is what is most important, the infant’s image, too, is outside of himself. It is at this point that a fissure erupts in the subject’s psyche and he is forever fragmented – forever a representation of his reflection, twice removed from his Self, and once returned.
In Safe, Haynes uses mirrors to bolster the presentation of Carol’s fragmented Self. As Mary Ann Doane notes, “Carol White is a hostage of her environment, and the mise-en-scène and framing reiterate this at every moment.” I would add that Haynes often uses mirrors to both accentuate Carol’s hostile environment and to illustrate the destabilization of her identity. In the first key mirror scene of the film, Carol and Greg sit at opposite sides of their bed: Greg, on the right side of the bed, faces the mirrored doors of their bedroom closet, and thus faces his own reflection; Carol, on the left side and opposite side of the bed, faces away from her reflection. As she explains that she can’t help her headache, and thus is unable to alleviate Greg’s sexual frustration, she also turns away from herself – from her reflection. Greg, looking rather dejected and expressing that he “[doesn’t] even want to hear about it,” faces both his own reflection and Carol’s. The visual effect is to render Carol both framed by her environment and alienated from herself. Moreover, even her reflection is hemmed in by the partitioned door and partially hidden by her husband’s back. In this sense, too, the reflected image of Carol – one that, I would argue, she has internalized – is also framed and held hostage by her environment.
Later, when we first see Carol alone at a mirror, her image is further fragmented as she is continually distanced from herself and from her environment. Specifically, in this scene, Carol is at a friend’s baby shower wherein she physically distances herself from the group as she fails to communicate with them. After a slightly anxious interaction – Carol makes a failed attempt to compliment another guest’s gift-wrapping skills – Carol absconds to the restroom. This scene is shot from behind Carol as she faces a partitioned corner mirror. Her back is in the foreground, her frontal image is “in front” of and facing her and the camera, and there is a reflection of her side to her right. For forty-three seconds, Carol simply faces her reflection. The overwhelming effect is not so much that she transforms into someone else, but transforms into her own image. In Lacan’s words, this scene represents “the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes [assume] an image.” When the scene shifts back to the baby shower, it depicts the other party-goers discussing Carol’s physical appearance – “I mean, her hair looks really cute, but her skin looks so…” – and situating this appearance in the context of her rumored visits to the psychiatrist.
Lacan writes that “[f]rom the moment that this gaze appears, the subject tries to adapt himself to it, he becomes that punctiform object, that point of vanishing being with which the subject confuses his own failure.” In the case of Carol, her “failure” and her “point of vanishing” are codeterminant. That is, within the social framework of white, upper-middle class suburbia, Carol’s identity is under erasure as she is continually subject to an ideological framework that renders her a part of the mottled masses. That she fails to communicate with the other party-goers is not so much indicative of Carol’s performative failure, but that the framework itself is already failed – that even in an ideological, social framework in which material accumulation is cast as personal success, there can be no successful, individual performance that does not completely adhere to an already failed system.
Perhaps most importantly, the mirror scene at the baby shower foreshadows the final scene of the film: one in which Carol speaks to her externalized self while facing a mirror. To best discuss the ideological relevance of this scene, I want to first situate it within a larger theoretical framework while also contextualizing it within the last couple of scenes in the film.
Towards the film’s end, Carol and a partner have prepared a meal for the folks at Wrenwood. Following an awkward dance in which dancers distance themselves from one another, even while dancing “together,” Carol’s cooking partner announces that Carol’s birthday is the following day. A cake is presented, candles are blown, “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” is sung, and “Speech!” is shouted as a request to Carol. After making some disclaimers about her poor public speaking skills, Carol offers the following speech to the group: "I don’t know what I’m saying. It’s just that I really hated myself before I came here…so I am trying to see myself, hopefully, more as I am. More…more positive, like seeing the pluses. I think it’s slowly opening up now. People’s minds, like…educating and, and…AIDS and…and other types of diseases…because, because…It is a disease…because it’s out there…and we just have to be more aware of it. And we have to make people aware of it….and, um, even ourselves…like, uh, going…reading labels, and going into buildings…"
Upon trailing off, Carol looks at Peter, who raises his wine glass (filled with water) and toasts, “To Carol.”
Doane notes that “[a]s Carol learns to regurgitate the pscyhobabble of the center – the notion that hating herself is the origin of her disease – her isolation and inability to deal with the outside world increase to the point at which she accepts her own exile in a kind of sterile and hermetically sealed igloo.” Along these lines, it is only too fitting that Carol retreats to her exile – her “hermetically sealed igloo” after her first public attempt to “regurgitate the psychobabble of the center.” It is at this point that Carol’s ideological interpolation is complete: she has internalized the psycho-spiritual ideology of Wrenwood – the Camp, the “state of exception,” that has functioned as a highly regulated ideological apparatus. To “seal the deal,” so to speak, in the final scene of the film, Carol confronts her mirrored reflection in her small, sterile and antiseptic, monochromatic igloo. Although we see her approach the mirror, the camera’s point of view is the mirror’s. That is, Carol, in her one, frontal close-up of the film, faces the camera – us – as she faces the mirror and herself. The formal effect is threefold: first, this filmic strategy places Carol at a mirror where she confirms her self-love; second, it places the viewer in the position to see the self that Carol becomes as a reflection of her reflection; and third, it also casts the viewer in the role of Carol’s Other – of Carol’s externalized Self.
Earlier in film, Peter claims, “What you are seeing outside is a reflection of what you are feeling within.” As previously mentioned, Carol looks more physically ill in this scene than at any other point in the film – she has a bruise or sore on her forehead, her eyes are sunken and hollow, and she looks pale and sickly. Prior to this mirror scene, Carol does confess that she “really hated [her]self before [she] came here [Wrenwood].” We might then read Carol’s appearance as a psychosomatic manifestation of her self-hatred. As Carol looks at herself, she says, “I love you…I love you…I really love you.” On one hand, this is another instance of Carol regurgitating the “psychobabble” of Wrenwood. Earlier in the film, another agent of Wrenwood – Claire – confronts and interrogates Carol, telling her that when she first came to Wrenwood, she was very sick, but “every hour of every day I would look at myself in the mirror and I would say to myself ‘Claire…I love you. I really love you.’” At the end of the month of doing this, Claire was “healed.” So, too, does Carol begin the process of self-healing. On the other hand, the person to whom Carol says this is one who has physically degenerated significantly from when she first started having “reactions.” So, in some sense, the person that Carol loves is not so much who she has been, but who she has become. From the viewer’s perspective, we see Carol become who she has become. That is, we see her internalize the metaphor that her body has become, so that she integrates her degenerated body into her psychological comportment. Moreover, in this final scene, Haynes’ visual strategy is such that it both denies the appearance of Carol’s reflection while simultaneously presenting her as her own reflection. She is now her own Other as she has internalized the ideology of Wrenwood, and thus she has internalized the Other and has become her Other’s other.
Lacan observes that “[m]imicry reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called an itself that is behind. The effect of mimicry is camouflage, in the strictly technical sense. It is not a question of harmonizing with the background but, against a mottled background, of becoming mottled.” In Safe, Carol is ideologically interpolated into part of the “mottled background.” By providing a space in which she is both physically and psychological changed, Wrenwood functions as a “state of exception” wherein Carol’s body is treated as if it were her identity. Wrenwood, as a spatial manifestation of an ideological technique, first erases the boundary between Carol’s body and her psyche; second, Wrenwood thus facilitates the erasure of Carol’s Self. But, as I already mentioned, Carol was malleable to begin with – a sort of blank slate that itself mirrored the ideological boundaries of her domestic and social spaces. While we could certainly read Carol’s malleability as a form of resistance, her monochromatic character allegorically represents the malleable nature of subjective identity formations and the spaces that impose new formations onto subjects.
Carol’s body is configured by the space she occupies, while the spaces that surround her body are ideologically informed. That is, in Safe, space itself performs an ideological function in interpolating Carol’s identity to fit the body that the space demands. Along these lines, the relationship between Carol’s interiority and exteriority, between the body and the subjective Self, is such that the two are conflated.
From guest contributor Jeremy Justus