Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Written by: Todd Haynes.
Starring: Julianne Moore (Carol White), Peter Friedman (Peter Dunning), Xander Berkeley (Greg White), James LeGros (Chris), Susan Norman (Linda), Kate McGregor-Stewart (Claire), Mary Carver (Nell), Steven Gilborn (Dr. Hubbard), April Grace (Susan), Lorna Scott (Marilyn), Jodie Markell (Anita), Brandon Cruz (Steve).
Todd Haynes’ Safe is a film that haunts you for days, if not weeks, after seeing it. It’s a film that gets under your skin, and stays there. It’s such an ambiguous film – but not because it doesn’t provide enough information for the audience, but perhaps because it supplies too much. There are multiple explanations that are plausible based on the evidence in the film, and yet that evidence does not contradict itself – but rather simply supplies an alternate theory. Haynes has always excelled at playing with genre – seemingly feeding audience expectations, and then twisting them completely around. He does that brilliantly in Safe – a film that confused and befuddled audiences in 1995, but has since gone on to be considered a masterpiece (for instance, it placed 1st on the Village Voice 1990s poll). When I first saw the film as a teenager, I don’t think I appreciated just how deep a film, how unsettling a film this is. Watching it again now – for the first time in years, it blew me away.
Safe is a film that is neatly bisected into two halves. The first is almost a domestic horror film, in which Carol White (Julianne Moore) plays rich housewife whose only major problem is that the furniture people have delivered a black couch, when she clearly ordered teal. She leads an orderly, if rather dull life, with her rather dull husband, Greg (Xander Berkeley), and his son, her stepson. Haynes quickly establishes how dull their life is a few quick scenes at the beginning of the film, culminating in one of those movie sex scenes that films about bored housewives specialize in – with the husband on top grunting and thrusting away, not noticing his wife’s bored expression through the whole ordeal.
Yet, although Haynes maybe setting up a story of a bored housewife – something we’ve seen before – that’s not where he ends up. It quickly becomes apparent that Carol has deeper problems that a dull life – and that’s even before she starts getting sick in a way no one can understand. Carol is in many ways a cipher – a blank – a woman who has no connection to anyone or anything, and is so meek and quiet that she barely seems to be present in her own life. When she starts getting sick – when everything around her starting making her ill, from gas fumes, to perfume, to pretty much everything else, she has to deal with one patronizing man after another – her husband, who is barely able to control his anger at her for being ill, her family doctor, who condescendingly explains that she’s fine, it’s nothing but stress, to the specialist, who cannot understand what the hell Carol has to be stressed about. But Carol really is sick – you cannot deny that – but whether her symptoms are caused by the outside world, or are psychosomatic, is open for debate.
In the first half of the film, Haynes does a masterful job at directing – using the visuals, sound design and musical cues of a horror film, to gradually increase the tension and suspense, and generally cause audience unease. But Safe doesn’t have a horror movie villain stalking Carol – that villain is the mundane, white, suburban world that surrounds her, slowly choking the life out of her. Safe makes the mundane more horrific than any film I can think of.
That part of the film gives away to something completely different – and at first far more reassuring, although it ends up perhaps even more disturbing than the film’s first half. As Carol gets worse, she decides to head to a remote compound – led by Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), a man with AIDS and the same environmental disorder that Carol has. At first, this hippie-like commune seems relaxing and reassuring, but darker undertones start seeping in. Is this a cult? Is Peter blaming people for their own illness? And why does Carol seemingly get worse and worse while she’s there? Haynes, who at the time was one of the leaders of the New Queer Cinema introduces Peter – a supposedly gay character – and at first he seems like a savior. Only gradually do you start to see how messed up things really are on that compound. And if you think this is a journey of rediscovery for Carol – one where the bored housewife rediscovers her lust for life – you’d be wrong there as well. Haynes toys with the audience here – introducing a potential love interest (James LeGros), that he than does nothing with. Carol, it seems, is just as much of a cipher as always – even in one of her final scenes, where she is asked to give a speech to those in the commune, she struggles to do anything other than regurgitate the empty platitudes they have been feeding her.
This is the first time Haynes is working with Julianne Moore – and the result is one of the finest performances of Moore’s career – and one that anchors the movie more than the not so great performances in Haynes’ Poison, which kind of hurt the film. Despite the fact that Carol is a little bit of blank, Moore understands her so completely, and makes her more sympathetic than such a passive character normally would be. This was right near the beginning of Moore’s career – her first real leading role – and it remains one of the great performances of her career – and really of the 1990s.
Safe is pretty obviously an AIDS metaphor – much like part of Poison was. This time though, Haynes makes it harder to turn away, and doesn’t offer the same sort of distancing device as the 1950s B-movie plot of the Horror section of Poison did. Carol really is sick – and getting progressively worse throughout the movie. And even though everyone seems to think they have the answer, they don’t, and Carol ends up even more alone than where she began. Safe is an unsettling masterpiece – an impossible film to pin down, but one that will haunt you. You may love or hate the film – but you won’t forget it.