This is a follow-up to our April/May “Watch With Spooool”. Listen to the podcast for more and check out May/June’s Mad Max post here.
Awards: Contributors of The Village Voice dubbed it the best film of the 1990’s
Fun Fact: The main character here is called Carol and Todd Haynes’ latest film Carol will debut at Cannes later this month. Páraic and I also watched it in the presence of a Carol.
Feel like watching a horror film where the thing to be afraid of is all around you?
Todd Haynes’ 1995 film Safe sees Julianne Moore play Carol White, a woman who develops multiple chemical sensitivity, eventually becoming intolerant (either through the power of suggestion or through her own actual allergies) to pretty much everything around her.
Carol has everything – a decent husband by the name of Greg, an upper-class life that means no need to work, a pretty suburban house and an inoffensive group of friends. She is a physically weary and weak looking soul, but like many people of her socio-economic condition decides to try a fad diet, in this case a fruit diet. Coughing fits, fainting, panic attacks ensue and as her paranoia reaches new heights she tries to cut out plastics, additives, pollution and anything with any chemical presence from her life. As she opts to leave her family home, the film begins to explore the cult of expensive, questionable rehab “retreats” and the lengths people will go to live the healthy life.
Haynes has constructed a film that moves along very slowly which won’t suit everyone. It takes until well after the half-hour mark for you to work out what his setup is leading to. It’s a truly beautiful film with the cinematography from Alex Nepomniaschy particularly good at creating a sense of fear of the bland, sterile suburban LA houses that Haynes chose to shoot his film in (some of which are his own family homes trivia fans). Much of the unease comes from the David Lynch-esque score from Ed Tomney which is paired with continuous subtle humming and droning sound effects tiny high-pitched sounds which are superb at making you the viewer get as paranoid and uneasy as Carol
Moore is superb, with how she holds herself and the subtle body movements revealing a woman wasting away into her own mind. The physical manifestations of her condition leaves her in a wretched state at the end of the film and shows her in some of the most uncompromising light of her career. She starred in the ensemble cast of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts two years beforehand, but looking at the filmography from the 1990s, it’s Safe that seems like the first role where she’s the true leading lady we’ve come to know and love – performances which were finally rewarded this year with the Oscar for Still Alice.
The central issue at play in Safe is whether Carol is a victim of her own empty, unchallenging life and maybe allowed her body to build up all this intolerance just so as it would have something to do. In exploring the rehabilitation retreat and how it was marketed, there are comparisons with the early onslaught of AIDS and the unknown elements of its arrival.
The unprolific Haynes would go on to make more complete films (Far From Heaven remains one of the 2000’s most interesting domestic love stories), but Safe is a must-watch that’s well worth going back to now.