Carol White (Julianne Moore), an upper-middle-class Los Angeles housewife, is stricken with a mysterious illness that her doctor cannot diagnose or explain. He believes her illness to be psychosomatic, but Carol, through contact with a support group, realizes she has "environmental illness," an immune disorder that causes her to physically overreact to common chemicals, fumes, and environmental pollutants. The film follows her journey to a clinic in New Mexico in search of relief from her increasingly debilitating symptoms.


Safe is an unsettling film. While it seems clear that the filmmaker believes environmental illness is a real phenomenon, many questions linger. Does Carol’s passive, childlike personality have anything to do with her illness? Why do most of the sufferers appear to be middle-to upper-middle class (à la the sufferers of chronic fatigue syndrome)? Carol initially blames "stress" as one of the primary causes of her symptoms--but this is hard to fathom given her wealth, her controlled, even sterile, environment, and her full-time maid. Still, Carol is a sympathetic figure, and her suffering is real and frightening.

Carol’s doctor becomes increasingly angry and blaming when he is unable to determine any organic cause for her symptoms (outtakes of this movie featuring scenes of Carol and her doctors might alone be instructive for medical students). However, the initially sympathetic New-age guru-like leader of the Wrenwood Clinic in New Mexico (Peter Friedman) also resorts to blaming the victim ("The only person who can make you sick is you").

In the end, Carol retreats to a completely sterile, toxin-free house, barely able to tolerate a hug from her husband (Xander Berkeley) because she reacts to some scent in the fabric of his shirt. Viewers are left wondering if Carol will ever be able to return to "normal life"--and wondering, too, if life in 20th century America is itself "normal."

Primary Source

Sony Pictures Classics