Tab Hunter and Divine in Polyester. 1981. USA. Directed by John Waters. Photo: Larry Dean. Courtesy Warner. Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Unforeseen Calamities

Watching Todd Haynes’s Safe and John Waters’s Polyester in a time of COVID-19.
Alex Halberstadt May 22, 2020

Our current moment is one of deep crisis and emotion, defined by endless new urgencies and, for many, a simultaneous and strange feeling of suspended time. We’re also barreling toward a new future, one we’d never before imagined. There is a historical dimension to this time of challenge as we soldier on—of history being written and intimations of a new reality emerging. And for this reason, amid all exigencies, reflection is also needed. When this moment has passed, art and artists and cultural institutions will have a critical role to play in helping us all explore how we think, feel, and live anew in the world we return to. As part of a new series on Magazine, we invite reflection on those challenges, contradictions, and uncertainty in this present moment.
—Glenn Lowry

For the past six weeks I’ve been at home, sick. These have been weeks of blinding headaches and fevers, of confounding relapses, of waking up drenched in sweat and scouring news reports with the meandering fear that announces itself at the strangest times. But there has also been the poignant stillness of a deserted New York City in bloom. A neighbor brought, unasked, homemade chicken and rice soup. Another neighbor mailed a handwritten letter with a Jehovah’s Witnesses tract tucked into it alerting me that soon there will be “no more sickness or suffering of any kind” (Isaiah 25:8). And nearly every night I’ve watched movies. Possibly the most uncanny thing about them is the way that, in difficult times, they can persuade us that we’re watching a parable—that it is us we’re seeing onscreen. And so I chose movies about people whose lives are upended by unforeseen calamities. For some reason, I’ve kept returning to two—Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995) and John Waters’s Polyester (1981)—until in my weary brain they’ve merged into a single story that has something cathartic and possibly hopeful to say about our present moment.

Tonally, they’re nothing alike—Safe is a slow, quiet horror film about suburban life, while in Polyester, every figment of suburbia is amplified into outrageous satire. And yet their stories, about the unraveling of two women who happen to be unusually sensitive to their environments, are undeniably similar. Safes Carol White (Julianne Moore) and Polyesters Francine Fishpaw (Divine)—homemakers living on opposite coasts—earnestly believe in the lives they’ve made, and fight for them even as they disintegrate.

Divine in Polyester

Divine in Polyester

We meet them in their homes: Carol appears lost in hers, a Tudor mansion decorated with Marcel Breuer chairs and the kind of severely modern furniture that lends it the appearance of an upscale cosmetic surgeon’s waiting room. The only touch of color is a teal sectional, reminding us that we’re in the San Fernando Valley circa 1987. The film begins with a presentiment of Carol’s unhappiness: she is in bed, pinned under her husband, Greg, and the camera points straight down at her stoic face during what must be one of the least alluring acts of consensual sex in recent cinema.

Moore portrays Carol as someone who has a vivid interior life and yet happens to be largely inarticulate. As we watch her develop symptoms of a mysterious environmental illness—a sneeze and a nosebleed that give way to a seizure—we share her helplessness and terror. The illness blows apart Carol’s ideas about who she is, exposing the flimsiness of her social connections. The hapless Greg—with his defeated posture and spray-hardened hair—alternates between incomprehension and hostile entitlement. Even her best friend, Linda, one of the affluent women who form Carol’s social circle, barely knows her. Their tentative, halting conversations, set on a restaurant patio overlooking a roaring freeway, revolve around their aerobics class and fruit diet.

Much has been written about Safe since the pandemic began, partly because of the film’s unsparing ideas about illness: Haynes is critiquing a culture of magical thinking that blames the ill for their afflictions, a cover for society’s refusal to confront and humanize the suffering and dying of AIDS patients and other marginalized Americans. But the film resonates, too, because of its peculiar emptiness and menace, which resemble what’s around us today. Carol is filmed from afar in vast spaces, whether the arid New Mexico landscape or her equally unwelcoming home. In one scene, she stands at the far end of her enormous living room, speaking on the phone with her mother, who we never see. “That’s fine… he’s fine… they’re fine,” Carol says into the receiver; in the background we can just hear a radio play George Benson’s “Turn Your Love Around” over the hum of the maid’s vacuuming. Almost nothing happens, and yet the scene makes us feel like passengers aboard a commuter plane that has suddenly begun to lose altitude.

Francine’s house in a verdant Baltimore cul de sac is an Early American and French Provincial fantasia, accented with gauzy white drapes and boudoir lighting. In the opening scene we watch Francine at a mirror, corseted in white spandex, attacking her face and body with depilating gadgets and deodorizing sprays (the 1980s ushered in a boom of “personal” products intended to make women’s bodies smooth and odorless). Everything in John Waters’s universe is played at maximum volume, including Francine’s plight. In the next scene, her turkey-necked husband Elmer, owner of an adult movie theater and an unconvincing toupee, berates Francine while she mixes him a drink from a cocktail cart that she wheels into the living room. “Yes, dear,” she replies unhappily, deferring to his authority.

Francine’s gift—or is it a curse?—is her preternatural olfaction; this struck me as strangely comforting at a time when some of us have lost our sense of smell. At screenings of Polyester, scratch-and-sniff cards—a gimmick Waters named Odorama, a tribute to the shlock-horror director William Castle’s Smell-O-Vision—are handed out to audiences, so we can partake in the mostly appalling odors with Francine. As with Carol, this sensitivity to her environment brings Francine’s world crashing down around her. She smells another woman on Elmer, who promptly leaves her for his secretary (played by Waters regular Mink Stole, wearing blond Bo Derek cornrows). After she sniffs out her children’s juvenile delinquency, Francine turns to heavy drinking.

The world offers her little solace: her mother berates her appearance and steals from her. Her best friend, Cuddles Covinsky, is kindhearted but not terribly observant of her friend’s anguish. A former maid who’s come into a great deal of money, Cuddles is set on transforming herself into a pillar of upper-class society. When Francine finds out that her son has been expelled from junior high school for truancy, Cuddles remarks, “He’s probably out playing polo with his friends.” And when Francine asks her friend to take her to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting after an all-night bender, Cuddles drives her instead to an upscale department store so she can pick out a debutante gown. “Oh, a Halston,” Cuddles cries in a mind-stoppingly broad Baltimore accent. “How au courant!”

Waters’s canniest decision is to not allow the film’s radioactive satire to overwhelm the drama. Divine was easily the finest actor among Waters’s cast of regulars—her performance in Polyester and its follow up, Hairspray, earned rave reviews from the likes of Pauline Kael and the *New York Times*—and she plays Francine with the physically expressive pathos of a silent film heroine. Waters’s script gleefully piles on the misfortune, subjecting Francine to a two-tiered romantic betrayal. The man of her dreams, the hopefully named Todd Tomorrow (portrayed with genuine ardor by 1950s heartthrob Tab Hunter), also happens to own a movie theater; unlike Elmer’s smut palace, his is an arthouse drive-in with a concession stand that sells champagne and issues of Cahiers du cinéma, under a marquee that reads “Three Marguerite Duras Hits.” When he, too, betrays Francine, her breakdown mirrors Carol’s collapse.

Tab Hunter and Divine in Polyester

Tab Hunter and Divine in Polyester

As it happens, the similarities between Polyester and Safe, and their heroines, are not coincidental—both directors were in thrall to the same film, Douglas Sirk’s 1955 drama All That Heaven Allows, in which Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson move through a New England town so lovely and contrived that it appears painted by hand. Once disparaged as mannered and sentimental, Sirk’s films had been rediscovered by younger directors, many of them queer, who went on to rehabilitate Sirk’s reputation as well as an entire, nearly forgotten genre.

All That Heaven Allows—along with Polyester and Safe—exemplifies what are sometimes called women’s films. The genre established itself in mid-20th-century Hollywood; it’s built around a female protagonist, concerns itself with the home, motherhood, or romantic love, and is marketed to women. Scholars and critics often refer to these films as melodramas, a term spoiled by its whiff of condescension. I prefer to think of them as domestic operas. Like opera, what these films essentially offer audiences is the spectacle of women suffering. But instead of seamstresses expiring from consumption or druid priestesses leaping onto pyres, they portray homemakers falling victim to poor choices, for which they’re punished with social ostracism and public shame. Nearly all of these films were written and directed by men, and were conceived as morality plays—while we are meant to identify with the heroines, we are also made to understand that they brought about their suffering by misconstruing their social roles.

I suppose I’ve been returning to Safe and Polyester because they suggest that adversity can bring transformation, a comforting notion at a time when many are ill, and most are stuck at home. I realized, too, that the films embody two distinct fantasies about the pandemic. In Safe, Carol’s illness painfully unpends her routines, but also reveals them to be loveless and empty. It is only in the midst of crisis that she is able to awake in her own life, and reckon with whom she wants to be. In the arresting final scene, Carol is alone in a kind of sterilized igloo, trying on an affirmation she hopes might heal her. She gazes at herself in a mirror and repeats “I love you… I really love you,” wondering whether she believes it, while the camera closes in on her. It’s hardly a happy ending—Carol is still lost. And yet, like Carol, I find myself wanting this lonely period of upheaval to teach me to become wiser, less critical, more resourceful—to finally believe the affirmations I couldn’t believe before.

Francine’s story is less ambiguous—her troubles end when the film’s villains are run over by Cuddles’ limo, and the last shot frames Francine in front of her home, holding her grateful children. Waters seems to say that sometimes, in the midst of hardship, it’s enough that trouble simply goes away. In an oddly touching flourish, Francine sprays the night around her with a can of air freshener as the final Odorama number flashes on screen. I recently called Waters to ask about the scene, and about whether Polyester has a moral. He considered my question. “I think Francine learns that she’s better off on her own,” Waters said. “And that what matters is her family is together and things smell nice for a while.”