Safe is not your everyday 90s independent film. About the only thing it has in common with the most celebrated films from the era is the miniscule budget. That is not meant as a slight against what was an innovative film movement, but merely a way of setting Todd Haynes’ project apart. It is the outlier of the movement, and like many outliers before it, has come to be recognized over time.
Let’s face it, Safe is bleak. It is about the degradation of everything in a human being’s life. Carol goes from a materialistic housewife, albeit an unhappy one, to a state of constant suffering that necessitates a rejection of the modern world. We feel for Carol with every cough, every sneeze, and especially every time she vomits.
However depressing, it is also a beautiful world. We can thank Todd Haynes and Alex Nepomniaschy for creating such a visually stunning world without spending much money. Haynes’ shot construction and Nepomniaschy’s lighting complement each other. Haynes likes to fill the shot with a lot of empty space, which gives a good DP plenty of room to light in a way that draws our attention to the focal point of the scene. One such example is when Carol frantically pulls into a parking garage in the midst of a couching fit. The sequence ends with a long shot of her car in the garage. We hear her coughing, but all we see is the car, alone and detached in the distance. The lighting does not draw attention to itself because it creates the illusion of the unflattering and dull light of a parking garage, but in this sequence, it captures a visual beauty that portrays a sickness.
Because of budget restraints, Haynes uses a lot of long takes, but that really works for this type of film. Another remarkably framed scene is early on in the house. The scene begins with a long shot of the living room. Carol is on the phone in a tiny corner of the frame, yet it is dominated by the ostentatious display of their interior decorating. The point Haynes is making is that Carol is consumed by the materialism of this world of the 20th century. As the shot continues, she moves closer to the camera, which tracks slowly backward outside of the room to reveal a doorframe. Carol makes her way to the door and when the shot ends, she is framed inside it as if she is a woman in a box. The film language highlights the central theme, and foreshadows how the plot will unravel.
Safe is one of those films that you can pause at just about any shot and find the still image visually striking. In that sense, it reminds me of an Orson Welles film (not that I am comparing these two filmmakers), because his movies also had the quality of working as still images. Not too many of Haynes’ 90s contemporaries have that same aesthetic. Filmmakers like Tarantino, Sayles, Soderberg and others that found independent success in the early 90s were more concerned with creating a mood, often one of grittiness, and were not consumed by visual imagery. Those that would come later in the decade, like Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson were more interested in framing and shot construction, and were very likely inspired by Haynes’ Safe
It is no secret that the message of the movie is that of AIDs. The autoimmune disorder of Carol being ‘allergic’ to the 20th century is simply a façade for the real illness that was permeating the world of the filmmakers. This message is clear from watching it more than once, and Haynes and Vachon speak of their intent openly. They wanted to make a film about AIDs. In case there’s any doubt, it is erased by Carol’s final image where she clearly has Kaposi’s sarcoma on her forehead.
In hindsight, the AIDs epidemic is compelling. We live in an era where the disease is still not cured, but at least is in control. People are not dying from it like they were in the 1980s, at least not in this country. I could discuss this film and talk about nothing other than AIDs, but I’m going to pass on that temptation. It has been discussed plenty enough already, and I think there is more to reveal behind even the AIDs reading of the film, much of which Haynes intended even if he did not say so explicitly.
A bulletin board advertisement asks: “Are you allergic to the 20th century?” This is the turning point of the movie. Previously Carol has been mostly in denial about her illness, even if it is clear from her symptoms that it exists, regardless what her doctor says. When she reads this ad, it is as if a light bulb is turned on in her mind. She IS allergic to the 20th century. As she further explores this program and others, that belief is reinforced. It is not just the culture of materialism and the social mores that she has trouble fitting in with, but her body is explicitly rejecting the chemicals of the modern world.
The movie transitions from inaction to action, as Carol sets herself on a course to remedy her illness. We know where that will eventually take us, but the process reveals a lot about the world in which Carol, Haynes, Vachon, and Julianne Moore lived.
Eventually she lands in a retreat, which resembles a 12-step program facility. If you’ve known anyone in the program, you will know that it can work to curb addiction, but it also has a rhetoric and jargon that goes along with it. There is one scene where Carol is speaking with her friend Linda in a café. Previously in the movie, she was pensive and nervous when speaking in public, even if it was just with a close friend. Now she has a script to read from. She has bought into the program and is one of its strongest advocates. In this sense, her anti-chemical refuge resembles a cult. This is her Jonestown (without the Kool Aid).
Dr. Dunning is the Wrenwood program leader, and he is quite the curious figure. He seems like a charming enough person. He speaks well and proves to be a good leader. Is he a good person? That’s not so clear. When he is not speaking to the crowd, he seems to be more concerned whether people are buying into the program, whether they are rejecting the outside world. In a candid conversation with Carol, he reveals as much. In one speech he speaks of keeping one’s mind open, and then later, he tells his people to shut it tight. He even goes so far as to say that he has stopped reading the news or watching television because he cannot bear to see what is happening to the world.
This transition in his message can parallel many totalitarian leaders. While Haynes is using AIDs and other autoimmune disorders as his main thrust, he is rejecting the groupthink that encompassed a lot of social movements during the day. To a lesser extent, this can be construed as rehabilitation programs, but I think the ultimate recipient of the scorn, and the one that he would not admit to, is Scientology. There are even many references to becoming ‘clear’ of chemicals, which is the essence of the Scientology message. During the 1990s when this movie was put together, the church was not as powerful in Hollywood as it was now. John Travolta and Tom Cruise had not yet signed on, but it did have a strong presence. And it was not the only type of post-modern, trendy social movement. There were many like it. Haynes is warning us not to blindly trust demagogues who would suggest that we close our eyes and shut out the world.
Of course I cannot talk about this movie without discussing Julianne Moore, in what was unequivocally her breakout performance. Today we know her as one of the top actresses of her generation, but back then, she was an up-and-comer that had just had her start working with artistic auteurs in Short Cuts. Moore has had quite a career, and has given two of her best performances to Todd Haynes (the other is Far From Heaven, which I would LOVE to see on Criterion). In my opinion, this is the best performance of her career. Her great acting is especially on display when she is acting sick, but I found her strongest in the first act when she is pretending not to be sick for fear of social or marital ostracization. Her face is often expressionless with a hint of fear, her speech soft and nervous. She seems to be on the brink of falling apart at any moment, yet somehow she manages to hold it in. That makes the times where she does break down even more powerful. Even with Haynes’ remarkable direction, it is hard to imagine the staying power of Safe without Julianne Moore.
Film Rating: 8/10
Commentary: – This commentary was recorded with Haynes, Moore and Vachon in 2001. This was probably around the time they were filming Far From Heaven together, perhaps after it wrapped and they were in the same place at the same time. Oddly enough, Julianne had never seen the final cut of Safe before.
Haynes reveals that a lot of scenes were shot at his grandfather’s place. After all, despite how the film looks, they had to save money. The opening shot where they drive up is on way to their house. Much of Carol and Greg’s house was shot in his grandfather’s house, like the kitchen and living room. Even the furniture company is their office. Throughout the commentary, he reveals that a lot of the extras were people that worked in the film in some capacity. They simply didn’t have a lot of money to pay people for small roles.
Moore tried to speak without using vocal cords too much, so she would breath her dialog. This gave a hint of fragility and sickness, and really enhanced her performance. They shot out of order and Moore had to lose a lot of weight for the ending scenes, which is remarkable given that she is in just about every shot.
There is a scene where Moore covers her face in Xander Berkeley’s shoulder and starts a coughing attack. She then vomits. You would think that the vomit was planted there, but no, that came from her. They highlight her process for that in the commentary. Most actresses would not attempt such a thing, but Moore gave everything to this role.
A lot of the shooting was during and after the big 1993 earthquake. That derailed a lot of their exterior shooting plans. The scenes in Wrenwood were shot in the Simi Valley, which was near the epicenter. There was an earthquake aftershock tremor that interrupts her final speech where she stumbles. It was probably a huge ordeal working around such a calamity with a shoestring budget. It is amazing that the film came out so good.
The Suicide, 1978 – This is a Todd Haynes short film, made when he was a child. For his age, he was already a talented filmmaker. The premise is a child is attempting suicide in a bathroom, and it flashes back to school confrontations and other problems that motivated the decision. It looks very because it was not shot on expensive film stock, and it is clearly amateur, but it shows a filmmaking and editing prowess.
Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore – This is a 2014 conversation between the two where they reflect on their career together that began with Safe. She aggressively wanted the part and auditioned in a T-shirt. They show the audition tape. The art in Safe, according to Haynes, is inverted. It followed the “cinematic trope,” as he puts it, but turns the formula on its head.
There were some TV articles in the 80s describing “environmental illness” or “20th century illness” Haynes had seen them and questioned whether they were authentic. Of course AIDs was at the forefront of his mind. He says that due to the time, you cannot think of Safe or his first feature, Poison without thinking of the epidemic.
Christine Vachon Interview – She was producer for Poison and Safe. They got together when he was editing Superstar. She saw the talent of Haynes and wanted to work with him. She put together a production company and went for a more ambitious project with Safe. She talks about auditioning process with Julianne, and how agent didn’t want her to read, but Haynes asked her to read when they met and she was glad to.
She talks about the AIDs virus and the affect it had on their community. He wanted to confront topic without dating itself, yet the LGBT community rejected the movie because it was not “gay enough. They wanted something more direct. Critics were not warm to it at first, but they came around. It made top ten lists that year, and by the end of the 1990s it had been understood and praised.
Criterion Rating: 8.5/10