Safe (1995)

Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Juilanne Moore, John Apicella, Xander Berkeley, Dean Norris .USA/UK. 1h 59m

After watching Todd Haynes’s masterful macabre paperwork drama, Dark Waters I can’t help but think back to one of his more impressive and less talked about movies, Safe; featuring all of the key elements that Haynes loves to explore, showing how we are negatively affected by “forever” chemicals. He takes a more sensitive approach in this mid nineties movie before breaking the doors down years later with the harder hitting Mark Ruffalo biopic.

I hired Safe out many years ago from Blockbusters, it was cheap, because it’s a bit too art house for some and slow and boring for the rest, but for me it really struck a chord, and later on after years of talking to people about it, that chord resonated more as there’s a surprising divide between the sexes about how real or relevant this movie is, I don’t believe it was the aim of the film but maybe a byproduct of Haynes ability to paint Julianne in a certain light while she battles invisible illness. Something that we’re all a little bit more aware of despite these damning warnings.

In the 21st century nobody will be… Safe.

There’s a lot of Haynes intertwined within this movie, made for around £500,000 it’s a healthy independent movie which is shot around his family homes and local halls and businesses just after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. Lots of the planned locations were destroyed or unworkable so Haynes just took the work home. He’s ability to date a film back a few years, 1987 in this case, and to fully respect the nostalgia by dulling his palette and keeping the muted pastel tones throughout. His characters are quite stoic, not as highly animated as most directors gear their cast up to be. Instead there’s lots of still moments, almost like looking at an old photo album that occasionally shifts.

Following the slightly surreal misadventure of a mouse like housewife, who prefers the title of home maker, Carol (Moore) is a shining example of a 1980’s privileged suburbanite, until she becomes incredibly allergic to the developed world around her. Her long suffering husband Greg, played by the frustrated eye rolling Xander Berkley, who doesn’t have a great track record for being anyone movie husband, finds all this too much, somewhere between the soulless sex he finds just enough time to complain about her panic attacks, nosebleeds and general unwell persona annoying, a silly excuse and tires of trying to care for her almost immediately, allowing her to go on this journey of discovery mostly alone.

Day by day the privileged couple and their soon to be tiki torch wielding son go about in a pristine polished world where spanish maids prepare each meal, hair and nails are perfect and a la mode, Carol spends her days instructing her house staff and working out to keep her flawless model lifestyle, however there’s a deadly hidden secret brewing within that’s about to tarnish their perfection.

Haynes seemed to have worked tirelessly with Moore, who lost 10lbs to play the fragile looking trophy wife, her make voice is barely heard as she fades into the background in most scenes. The only time she becomes apparent is when she begins to suffer strange episodes, a nosebleed from her perm, a massive coughing fit from car fumes, headaches and vomiting cause her to withdraw from her family, her husband misses the sex and that’s about the time when he starts to take things seriously. But as the symptoms to the world around her get more severe Carlos begins to take more interest in herself, but her awakening comes at a cost, the more she learns the worse her health becomes.

As Carol begins to hide from the smog of the city she finds a new refuge in an open dusty desert, this transition comes at a pivotal time as her mod becomes more determined, on her own she’s more independent and assertive, it’s not the first time someone has found themselves in the desert, but never quite like this. In a world of the dying, surrounded by support groups and oxygen tanks.

In the early throes of the movie in their wonderful modern home, everything is pastel and cute, symmetrical and clean, however in the desert, there’s an almost futuristic feel, between the church like sermons, support groups, people living in porcelain igloos and often walking around with their own air supply it wouldn’t be amiss as a chapter of Logan’s Run. The mood is sombre, that’s the only groove Carol can’t get out of no matter where she is.

For a while I was expecting Haynes to begin to make some kind of statement about how the human race is begining to become allergic to the (un)natural world around them, but for so much of the movie it seems to be some kind of expression on women being the weaker sex, until Carol finds more people like herself, however the movie seems to have a massive his and her divide, a lot of men seem to have taken a lot of different messages from the movie than the impression left on women. This seems to be totally unintentional, however I feel it comes from Haynes ability to craft a unique character, going above and beyond to give them such precise idosynchrises.

In reflection the movie is powerful but with so many messages and sentiments it could maybe have been built up with one main focal point, however Haynes managed to strike up a intense narrative through the struggles of one woman against visible but easily deniable foe. By the closing scenes there’s a the feeling that Carol has traveled through some kind of purgatory to a new self awakening but it’s equally chilling and uplifting, the perfect ending to a very haunting movie.

TLDR

Rating: 7/10

Related: Dark Water (2019)
List: Frightful Environmental movies
Article: Xander Berkley The Douchbag Husband
Spotlight: , Juliane Moore, Xander Berkley, Todd Haynes

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One thought on “Safe (1995)”

  1. I really found this moving engrossing and disturbing…Haynes and Moore went on to the make the terrific “Far From Heaven”, which is even better…great review, you always choose fascinating films to review!

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