At the heart of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which opens in theaters for its 40th anniversary September 1st) and Todd Haynes’ (whose new film, Wonderstruck, will play at NYFF) masterpiece [Safe] is the all-consuming desire to feel comfort and belonging when the world you live in offers no such pleasure. Though different in form and approach, Spielberg, whose unapologetic sentimentality is a hallmark of his work, and Haynes, who makes heady, intellectually rigorous movies that more often than not comment on sentimentality than are necessarily culpable of it, find a common feeling that infects both of their lead characters: displacement and — no pun intended — alienation.
On a farm in Indiana, a father of two, Roy (Richard Dreyfuss), becomes gradually consumed by investigating the meaning, origin, and cause of an unidentified flying object. It’s a flash of light and a wild red flying thing, which he describes as an “ice cream cone”. He is, understandably, bewildered. For a brief moment, Roy’s spotting of this force beyond nature brings him and his wife, Ronnie (Teri Garr), together. They tenderly kiss beneath the dark sky, where just moments before he had been at a loss for words in his attempt to describe what he saw. But the gap that is his already imperfect relationship with his children widens, as Roy steadily ignores anything that is not connected to trying to unpack his experience. Elsewhere, a woman named Jillian (Melinda Dillon) has seen something similar, her young son drawn to the lights like a moth to a flame. Scattered about her home are charcoal sketches of something mountain-like, drawn with gusto, as if by an unstoppable impulse. It’s something knocking at their skulls, without control or origin.
At the dinner table, mashed potatoes become a substitute for clay as Roy tries to shape this mountain, looking so intently at the sculpture as if he might die if he doesn’t complete it in some way. “I can’t describe it, what I’m feeling… and what I’m thinking. This means something… this is important,” he says, pointing gently in frustration at the mashed potatoes. His family sits around the table, nonplussed; tears roll down the face of one of his sons; Ronnie looks back at him, concerned and angry.
He throws clumps of clay at another, larger model of the mountain in the basement. Every attempt he makes will feel incomplete and imperfect, unable to capture the sheer wonder and fear he felt, the intimation of something like the meaning of his existence. He is undone by this experience unlike anything else; his soul is exposed in a way that breaks both him and his family. (When Roy’s older son sees him in the bathroom — clothes on, water running, as raw as ever — nothing scares him more than the sight of his father closing in on himself, his presentation of paternal masculinity subverted.) Even as he builds an even larger model in his living room with dirt and earth, he is unable to explain this obsession taking over his life. It’s just an image in his head, faultily represented through his various attempts at drawing and building. That is, until he finally sees it on television. So does Jillian.
This mountain provides something that his family cannot, that this domestic world cannot. His little house and family feel like entrapment, leading to nowhere; at home, he has little else but a fluctuating and fraught relationship with his wife and children. When Jillian and Roy embrace one another in the middle of a clamoring crowd, it feels as if they understand a shared sense of purpose, even of self. There exists between them an inexplicable shared intimacy. And when the two finally climb up the mountain and witness something real and transcendent, they feel alive. Beyond the doors of their houses is a sense of freedom from an implicit resignation to standard, even gendered roles. But their journey to discovering what flew across the sky is, to some degree, on their own terms.
Roy and Jillian aren’t the only ones seeking freedom from alienation. Behind the gates of a San Fernando Valley home, a home that looks like any other in the community, is a woman who is ill and does not know why. When her husband has sex with her at the beginning of the film, there is a sense of vacancy in her look; when her husband finishes, she looks off to her right, past the frame. A mix of boredom, ambivalence, maybe uncertainty is drawn on her face. Tinged in blue, the frame — her world, even — is cold.
In Todd Haynes’ third film, [Safe], Carol (Julianne Moore) does not know how to control the temperature in her life: her house, bedecked with so much stuff, is cold, too. She doesn’t even sweat, noted by a woman at her gym. Her carefully constructed world — her exertion over which is merely an example of how she, and her sense of identity are itself are constructed — is about to fall apart.
Haynes frames his lead as within a box, his camera often looking directly at Carol. His sense of symmetry becomes a formal technique to invoke horror and claustrophobia. However expansive Carol’s home may be, it is nonetheless a prison. All the warmth is sucked up. Angularities within the frame are as sharp as the tip of a blade. When Carol leads delivery men to the room where a new couch will be installed, the camera pans across what feels like an endless number of rooms, all fastidiously decorated, as if to negate a ghostly presence in the house. The opposite effect is achieved. It feels like no one human lives there except Carol, whose entire conception of humanity is contingent on her need to establish herself as housewife-cum-interior designer of her own home. To find herself, she must find the physicality and the totemic in a space. Without that, she is, as implied by the late 1980s world around her, almost nothing.
When her doctors are unable to give her a diagnosis to her sickness — her symptoms including coughing, nose bleeds, headaches, and seizures, all of which interfere with her previously designated domestic role — she finds a group of likeminded people who believe that “chemicals,” broadly defined and expansively placed, are the cause. Chemicals. Chemicals. “We’re born into this world with chemicals,” a woman says, speaking with a group of other chemically sensitive people. Carol sits to the side, listening intently. She is other without a complete conceptualization of it.
While [Safe] reframes this idea of isolation and alienation as a kind of domestic horror film, dealing with identity through a slightly more esoteric lens, what’s clear is that between the two protagonists of Haynes’ and Spielberg’s films is an inability to function within the environment that was once so familiar and right for them. Roy transforms his living room; Carol becomes allergic to hers. But while their journeys share similarities in terms of what they seek, their ends are far different; Roy joins the extraterrestrials to live outside the world that makes him miserable; Carol finds a self-help group that closes her off even more, leaving her sleeping in what might as well be a much more literal, sterile cell.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind and [Safe] are about how what you can and cannot see can break you, and the things one will do to be free of that mental and emotional confinement. These fixations — on beings and place beyond our conception, on disease that will eat away at us — shape the characters’ identities, no longer just husband or housewife, but as people whose alienation is fundamental to how they relate to the world and to the people around them. Roy and Carol are just looking for their place in the universe.