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Just when we thought nothing else could go wrong on this beleaguered planet, environmentalists and medical researchers have unearthed something called "multiple chemical sensitivity." Ten U.S. government agencies currently acknowledge the existence of this politically correct affliction, which is probably nine more than knew about it an hour and a half ago.

Now the newfangled disease has its very own movie, featuring its very own suffering heroine. It is called Safe.

But before pocketing a couple of fresh hankies and heading off in hopes of catching an update on Camille, there are a couple of things you should know. First, this strange, not-so-straight-faced film takes an ambiguous view of its subject, which is to say that writer/director Todd Haynes doesn't seem entirely convinced that the disease even exists. Second, Haynes, who earlier played out Karen Carpenter's anorexia saga using pixilated Barbie dolls, is no stranger to satire. And third, the movie's protagonist, a well-heeled, insulated suburban housewife whose idea of "creativity" is nice gift wrapping, can be more irritating than any of the thousand or so things she's allegedly allergic to.

That said, let's have a closer look at Carol White (Julianne Moore), her ailment and one of the most intriguing movies of the year. At once a kind of domestic horror flick and a medical mystery story in the manner of Lorenzo's Oil, Safe opens at night on a quiet, manicured street in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. Tucked into a gleaming Mercedes, white-bread couple Carol and Greg White (Xander Berkeley) are gliding home to their brand-new manse, a monstrosity whose architect must have been suffering from something baffling himself. Right away, there's dark, scary music on the soundtrack: Something's amiss.

But what? At first, the pale, almost featureless Carol (Moore was last seen as bad boy Hugh Grant's pregnant wife in Nine Months) has a case of the sniffles. But somewhere between berating her Hispanic maid ("Fulvia!" she shouts. Fulvia!) and exchanging small talk with the other airheads at aerobics class, things get worse. Her husband's hairspray has her swooning. Her new sofas--not the color she ordered, of course--give her fits. Exhaust fumes on the freeway and her fad-diet fruit plate apparently have Carol wheezing and scratching. The hundred bucks' worth of glop a hairdresser smears on her head may cause a full-scale Stepford Wife freakout.

Irony of ironies. We come to learn--or at least we're told--that for Carol White, the whole world is toxic: affluence as effluent. Call it multiple chemical sensitivity. Call it (rather grandiosely) "Twentieth-century disease." Call it whatever you like. Carol thinks she's got it, and neither the Whites' skeptical family practitioner nor the allergist who pokes her full of holes nor the shrink has a clue. From soup to nuts to her own annoying husband and stepson (Chauncy Leopardi), everything now irritates Carol, and our contempt for this privileged, brainless woman is slowly invaded by sympathy.

But Haynes (take a hint: he also directed Poison) is not after standard "disease movie" tragedy. Nor does he mean to simply give us the clinical goods on a bizarre medical syndrome. No, in Safe's dark, startling turn, Haynes ships the ever more distraught and bedraggled Carol off to a trendy clinic in New Mexico for the film's entire second hour. Once there, it slowly dawns on us that Haynes has another agenda--and another disease--to examine.

If we had any doubts about the filmmaker's taste for black comedy or his instinct for finding the social pulse, they soon evaporate. At fictive "Wrenwood," Carol is plunged into a swamp of ecstatic psychobabble, and charismatic Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), the new-age quack who runs the place, is so adept at laying guilt trips and pseudo-religious jive on the desperate patients that their heads are all spinning. If Carol White is Forrest Gump with a case of hives, Peter Dunning is the David Koresh of health care. So snowed and confused does he have his charges that, from their own screened-in warrens, they barely notice his huge white house on the hill, lights ablaze.

Put another way, Todd Haynes is just as interested in diagnosing the fads and follies of new-age excess as he is the particulars of "environmental illness." Without people like Carol, neither the proponents of colonic evacuation nor the manufacturers of pseudo-gods nor the charlatans who pretend to cure exotic diseases that mainly afflict people with large bank accounts could find a foothold.

Is Carol White's case of MCS a paranoiac fantasy? Probably not. Is it all in her head? Hard to know, since there's so little else occupying that space. By the end, though, we certainly pity her, even though she's degenerated from a character into a specimen. In the meantime, this fascinating, unexpectedly funny, occasionally dreary film raises some discomfiting questions about the fragile qualities of belief, about a culture in which victimhood outranks value and fraud runs rampant. "Twentieth-century disease," it says here, has many meanings, and a dizzying array of symptoms. None of us is safe.

 
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