Carol White (Julianne Moore) is a wealthy housewife living in California’s San Fernando Valley with her husband and stepson. She leads a comfortable if empty existence - lunching with her friends, beautifying herself and working on the interior design of her home. But after switching to a fashionable fruit diet Carol starts showing symptoms of sickness, including coughing fits, nose-bleeds and sudden panic attacks. While her doctor can find nothing wrong with her, her condition worsens. Finally, she comes to suspect that she may be suffering from “environment illness” – allergic reactions to the chemicals in her 20th century environment.
Review by Jake Wilson:
While this film from US independent Todd Haynes was made eight years ago, it’s finally being unveiled in Australia and could easily be taken as a sequel of sorts to his big hit from 2002, the lush pseudo-1950s melodrama Far From Heaven. Set in 1987, Safe again stars the highly competent Julianne Moore as a wealthy, neurasthenic housewife – a victim of what pop feminist Betty Friedan called “the problem with no name”.
Critiquing bourgeois banality may be the oldest middlebrow trick in the book, but as with Far From Heaven, the real strangeness of Safe lies elsewhere. Like every Haynes film, it’s an obsessively controlled formal experiment that borrows a particular set of stylistic gestures while resisting their usual meanings.
The obvious art-movie cross-references include Kubrick and Antonioni, but the slightly tacky dissolves and the ambient drone of the soundtrack – where spare synthesiser chords merge with traffic, humming appliances and the babbling of radio or TV – suggest that the director could equally be taking his cues from the haunting vacancy of a straight-to-video psychological thriller.
This minimalist chic is superficially at the opposite pole from Far From Heaven’s Technicolor delirium, but both movies are all about oppressing their respective heroines with decor: despite her furniture obsession, poor Carol is literally unable to control her own space, stranded in fixed long shots and blinking like E.T. with acres of fawn carpet stretching round her.Though the film is too carefully paced to be boring, after a while Carol’s enervation starts to wear down the viewer as well.
For me, Safe becomes livelier and more original in its final third, set in a New Age retreat presided over by a folksy guru who fosters a cult of victimhood (“He’s a chemically sensitive person with AIDS, so his perspective is incredibly vast”). Aided by a witty performance from Peter Friedman, the satire is merciless but never too obvious – though once again, the underlying purposes are less clear than the surface mastery suggests.
The real subtext might be Haynes’ own distrust of emotion, and consequent inability to tell a story “straight”. Like Carol, this gifted filmmaker seems to be trapped inside a shell – devoting his considerable intelligence mainly to justifying his own sense of paralysis.
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CAST: Julianne Moore, Peter Friedman, Xander Berkeley,
PRODUCER: Christine Vachon, Lauren Zalaznick
DIRECTOR: Todd Haynes
SCRIPT: Todd Haynes
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Alex Nepomniaschy
EDITOR: James Lyons
MUSIC: Ed Tomney, Brenadan Dolan
PRODUCTION DESIGN: David J. Bomba
RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Melbourne: May 6, 2004; Sydney: May 20, 2004
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
VIDEO RELEASE: November 3, 2004