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USA 1995
Directed by
Todd Haynes
118 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Safe

Synopsis: It is the early 1980s and Carol White (Julianne Moore) is a housewife living in an affluent San Fernando Valley suburb with her husband and stepson. She begins feeling unwell for no apparent reason and suspects that she is suffering from allergic reactions to her environment. Trouble is, her family and friends don't believe her.

Originally released in 1995, long before the success of Haynes' retro-melodrama Far From Heaven (2002) which also starred Julianne Moore, Safe is very much a dry-run for that film, dealing as it does with a model housewife whose picture-perfect life is in crisis. Whilst it lacks that film's poignant decorum and simulacrumatic polish and hence will probably not find as wide an audience (though the recreation here of 1980s fashion in hair, dress and interior décor is repellently fabulous), it is in many ways a more confronting and, if that's your thing, a better film.

Centre-stage is Julianne Moore in a remarkable performance that is in its own way as good as Charlize Theron's in Monster, only in the opposite direction. Whereas Ms. Theron inflated herself to monstrous proportions, Ms. Moore over the course of the film slowly wastes away, literally, pound by pound. This loss of physical presence is the external manifestation of a woman gradually retreating from her external world and descending into solipsistic neurasthenia. Depicting this condition would be a challenge for any actress but Ms Moore is completely convincing as she takes her character into the depths of mental breakdown without any trace of self-pitying histrionics.

Haynes, who also wrote this, is very successful at exploring the issue of whether his central character is psychosomatically ill, as her dork of a husband and doctors believe, or whether she is suffering from "environmental" illness, a complex of reactions to the pollutants that forms an unseen part of her daily urban life. This in turns leads into a second major aspect of the film, where Haynes takes on New Age philosophy and practices as a response to contemporary societal malaise. Half of the film is set on a New Age ranch where Carol goes in attempt to find people who will understand her. Which she does, but she also finds herself sinking even deeper into a mire of confusion as the paranoid implications of the "love thyself" message of the resident guru takes on a neo-Jonestown tenor. Haynes's position here is deliciously ambiguous, an ambiguity which is unfortunately resolved by the shot of the guru's hill-top mansion, inserted after the film was premiered at Sundance where the audience were unsettled by not knowing whether the film was pro- or anti-New Age.

This market-driven simplification aside, Haynes is an interesting director who consciously questions the narrative conventions of Hollywood. This does, however, result in one serious flaw and that is the film's conclusion. Yes, it is a relief not to have the standard redemptive ending but we still need an ending and that we do not get with Safe. The film simply stops, and given the quagmire that Moore's character is in, this is a cop-out. Does Carol have the inner strength to survive that Moore seems to give her, or, given her isolation and physical deterioration, will she fall victim to false prophets? We deserve to know this from our storyteller as we have engaged with his character's physical and mental suffering and followed her journey to the mirror. Safe does not leave the outcome ambiguous so much as unfinished.

With justice, the look of Safe has been compared to the coldly alienating world of Kubrick's 2001 (Safe's DOP, Alex Nepomniaschy, also shot last year's undeservedly-neglected cop thriller,Narc). We know what Haynes did after Safe, we can only hope he backtracks a little and resumes his interest in confrontational material.

 

 

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