One of the most remarkable films of the
nineties, and easily the best film David Cronenberg never made. It’s a
deceptively low key creep fest you’ll have a hard time shaking off, and boasts a
superb lead performance by Julianne Moore.
SAFE is arguably the finest film of writer-director Todd Haynes, who’s had
the most unpredictable filmmaking career imaginable. His first film was the
infamous 40-minute Karen Carpenter biopic SUPERSTAR (1987), cast entirely with
Barbie dolls--and since forcibly pulled from circulation due to Haynes’ use of
unauthorized Carpenters tunes. The three-part POISON followed in 1990, and
incited controversy for featuring gay sex scenes in an NEA-funded work.
SAFE appeared in 1995. Like the previous films it was
an independently made, low budget affair, but featured the first-ever movie star
in a Haynes project: Julianne Moore, who was reportedly so taken with the script
she cried when she got the part.
SAFE was also, with its unnervingly cool, detached air,
quite different from all that came before (and after: Haynes’s next films were
the insufferable Ken Russell
wannabe VELVET GOLDMINE, the self-important critics’ darling FAR FROM HEAVEN,
and the pretentious Bob Dylan biopic I’M NOT HERE). It almost feels as if it
were made by an entirely different filmmaker, David Cronenberg in particular.
The latter’s CRASH, made
around the same time as SAFE, makes for an interesting companion-piece.
The red-haired Carol White is an attractive suburban homemaker living in an
exclusive Southern California enclave. Carol has a perpetually aloof and
distracted air about her; she doesn’t enjoy sex with her husband, and nor does
she seem to get much out of gabbing with her fellow housefrows. The beginning
of the end for Carol occurs when a couch is delivered to her home that doesn’t
match the rest of the living room.
From there she grows progressively sick, breaking into
an uncontrollable coughing fit while driving, developing a nosebleed from
chemicals in a hair salon, and passing out entirely in a dry cleaning
facility--furthermore, she can’t even touch her husband without vomiting. It
seems Carol has 20th Century (or Environmental) Illness, a real-life
disorder whose sufferers are “allergic to the 20th--and by extension
Carol decides to stay at a secluded mountain retreat run by a wealthy
cancer survivor, who preaches self-blame in the guise of self-love as a panacea
for his followers’ various ailments. But this supposed cure does little for
Carol, who grows successively sicker to the point that she develops welts ugly
on her skin. Eventually her health gets so bad she has to move into a
hermetically sealed igloo--which doesn’t help.
Above all else, this film is CREEPY. It has a curiously subtle way of
burrowing under viewers’ skins with its relentlessly cold, clinical air. Todd
Haynes frames his images in impeccably ordered compositions that favor inanimate
objects; during the first half of the film, set in the bustling swirl of
late-eighties’ So Cal, the heroine is often placed at the far edges of the
frame, with pieces of furniture given prominence. That gives way in the second
half to the deceptively serene atmosphere of the mountain retreat (said by
Haynes to be patterned after AIDS treatment centers that sprung up in the
eighties and nineties), which is made to feel as oppressive as the big city
Carol fled. In SAFE there’s no escape from sickness and its causes, which makes
for a profoundly unsettling viewing experience.
What gives SAFE much of its power is the fact that it’s so rigorous and
straightforward in its construction, yet paradoxically impossible to pin down.
The narrative is focused to the point of claustrophobia on the sufferings of one
rather nondescript individual, yet it has much to say about collective life in
these chemically saturated times (none of it comforting!). Carol’s sickness is
carefully worked out, complete with an early scene in which a doctor outlines
the symptoms, yet its root causes are never revealed, and nor are we told why it
affects Carol so severely.
Todd Haynes has suggested the ailment is a good thing,
as it forces Carol to confront the emptiness of her suburban existence. I dunno...the
film as I viewed it doesn’t support that interpretation, being far
too eerie and foreboding before and after Carol gets sick. The disease
certainly does offer a new path for its sufferer, as per Haynes’ claims, but
that path seems far grimmer than anything that came before. The devastating
final shot underlines this point, in the unhappiest ending imaginable.
Then there’s the extraordinary lead performance by Julianne Moore. Moore
shaved ten pounds off her already slender frame to look appropriately sickly in
possibly the least flattering role of her career. It’s also very likely her
best work on film: Moore is in virtually every shot, and creates a heartbreaking
portrayal of a woman suffering from an ailment that very likely emanates from
somewhere inside herself. (She’s so good I’m willing to forgive a patently fake
coughing fit she has early on!)
There are other notable performances from an eccentric supporting cast that
includes Xander Berkeley, in yet another of his patented asshole hubbie/boyfriend
roles (others can be found in CANDYMAN and HEAT); James Le Gros, who hams it up
mightily as one of the mountain retreat’s nuttier residents; and onetime genre
starlet Jessica Harper, best known for her roles in SUSPIRIA, THE PHANTOM OF THE
PARADISE and SHOCK TREATMENT, in an extended cameo. All work together to
create a masterwork in which every component is impeccable--impeccably dark,
disturbing and impossible to ignore, much less forget.
American Playhouse Theatrical Films/Chemical Films
Director: Todd Haynes
Producers: Christine Vachon, Lauren Zalaznick
Screenplay: Todd Haynes
Cinematography: Alex Nepomniaschy
Editing: James Lyons
Cast: Julianne Moore, Peter Friedman, Xander Berkley, James Le Gros, Susan
Norman, Kate McGregor Stewart, Mary Carver, Steven Gilborn, April Grace, Peter
Crombie, Ronnie Farer, Jodie Markell, Lorna Scott, Dean Norris, Jessica Harper