1995, R, 119 min. Directed by Todd Haynes. Starring Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Peter Friedman, James Legros, Mary Carver, Susan Norman, Kate McGregor Stewart.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 22, 1995
Carol's life is killing her, or so it seems. But, maybe it's just her new couch. That's how the problem first became noticeable. As portrayed by Julianne Moore, Carol is an affluent Los Angeles housewife who busies herself with the routines of her life. Then, a new couch she purchased is delivered in the wrong color and its very presence seems to make her feel ill. Bit by bit, auto fumes make her retch, a trip to the dry cleaners results in suffocating hysteria, and her hair won't take a permanent. Her doctors prescribe, her friends console and suggest diets, her husband tries to understand and support. Everyone is having a hard time putting a finger on Carol's problem, but nothing seems to cure her discomfort and, steadily, she wastes away. Is her problem medical, societal, or psychological? All of the above? One of the key elements that makes Safe such an enormously challenging film is that writer/director Todd Haynes leaves these critical decisions to the viewer. The information he provides may support all these arguments but none is given pre-eminent weight. Still, Carol, who was rather wan and enervated when in good health, grows even weaker. Then she spots a flyer about a meeting for people with fume sicknesses and upon attending, she learns about immunity disorders and something called Twentieth Century Disease. Eventually, she checks herself into a New Age retreat that is designed to alleviate the symptoms of people suffering from this disease. At this point, Carol can not go anywhere without carrying an oxygen tank. Self-love is the main remedy taught at this retreat, and while the affirmations prove somewhat helpful, they also seem laden with all sorts of New Age sleight-of-hand. What Safe does so brilliantly is to plunge us down this frightening rabbit hole with Carol. We can see how the bourgeois trappings of her lifestyle do her harm. So, too, the fumes and chemicals present a life-threatening hazard. And perhaps Carol is too gullible and susceptible to persuasion by sources apart from herself. Safe also has an element of science fiction to this coming holocaust and maybe even an allegorical rendering of the AIDS epidemic. Such readings would be in keeping with Haynes' last feature Poison and his infamous short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Safe has aroused a lot of controversy and criticism from some who either disagree with the film's arguments or prefer more conclusive resolutions. Personally, I suspect that such rabble may be one of the latter stages of Twentieth Century Disease.