SafeOne of the most remarkable films of the nineties, and easily the best film David Cronenberg never made.  It’s a deceptively low key creep fest you’ll have a hard time shaking off, and boasts a superb lead performance by Julianne Moore.

SAFE is arguably the finest film of writer-director Todd Haynes, who’s had the most unpredictable filmmaking career imaginable.  His first film was the infamous 40-minute Karen Carpenter biopic SUPERSTAR (1987), cast entirely with Barbie dolls–and since forcibly pulled from circulation due to Haynes’ use of unauthorized Carpenters tunes.  The three-part POISON followed in 1990, and incited controversy for featuring gay sex scenes in an NEA-funded work.

SAFE appeared in 1995.  Like the previous films it was an independently made, low budget affair, but featured the first-ever movie star in a Haynes project: Julianne Moore, who was reportedly so taken with the script she cried when she got the part.

SAFE was also, with its unnervingly cool, detached air, quite different from all that came before (and after: Haynes’s next films were the insufferable Ken Russell wannabe VELVET GOLDMINE, the self-important critics’ darling FAR FROM HEAVEN, and the pretentious Bob Dylan biopic I’M NOT HERE).  It almost feels as if it were made by an entirely different filmmaker, David Cronenberg in particular.  The latter’s CRASH, made around the same time as SAFE, makes for an interesting companion-piece.

The red-haired Carol White is an attractive suburban homemaker living in an exclusive Southern California enclave.  Carol has a perpetually aloof and distracted air about her; she doesn’t enjoy sex with her husband, and nor does she seem to get much out of gabbing with her fellow housefrows.  The beginning of the end for Carol occurs when a couch is delivered to her home that doesn’t match the rest of the living room.

From there she grows progressively sick, breaking into an uncontrollable coughing fit while driving, developing a nosebleed from chemicals in a hair salon, and passing out entirely in a dry cleaning facility—furthermore, she can’t even touch her husband without vomiting.  It seems Carol has 20th Century (or Environmental) Illness, a real-life disorder whose sufferers are “allergic to the 20th–and by extension the 21st–Century.”

Carol decides to stay at a secluded mountain retreat run by a wealthy cancer survivor, who preaches self-blame in the guise of self-love as a panacea for his followers’ various ailments.  But this supposed cure does little for Carol, who grows successively sicker to the point that she develops welts ugly on her skin.  Eventually her health gets so bad she has to move into a hermetically sealed igloo–which doesn’t help.

Above all else, this film is CREEPY.  It has a curiously subtle way of burrowing under viewers’ skins with its relentlessly cold, clinical air.  Todd Haynes frames his images in impeccably ordered compositions that favor inanimate objects; during the first half of the film, set in the bustling swirl of late-eighties’ So Cal, the heroine is often placed at the far edges of the frame, with pieces of furniture given prominence.  That gives way in the second half to the deceptively serene atmosphere of the mountain retreat (said by Haynes to be patterned after AIDS treatment centers that sprung up in the eighties and nineties), which is made to feel as oppressive as the big city Carol fled.  In SAFE there’s no escape from sickness and its causes, which makes for a profoundly unsettling viewing experience.

What gives SAFE much of its power is the fact that it’s so rigorous and straightforward in its construction, yet paradoxically impossible to pin down.  The narrative is focused to the point of claustrophobia on the sufferings of one rather nondescript individual, yet it has much to say about collective life in these chemically saturated times (none of it comforting!).  Carol’s sickness is carefully worked out, complete with an early scene in which a doctor outlines the symptoms, yet its root causes are never revealed, and nor are we told why it affects Carol so severely.

Todd Haynes has suggested the ailment is a good thing, as it forces Carol to confront the emptiness of her suburban existence.  I dunno…the film as I viewed it doesn’t support that interpretation, being far too eerie and foreboding before and after Carol gets sick.  The disease certainly does offer a new path for its sufferer, as per Haynes’ claims, but that path seems far grimmer than anything that came before.  The devastating final shot underlines this point, in the unhappiest ending imaginable.

Then there’s the extraordinary lead performance by Julianne Moore.  Moore shaved ten pounds off her already slender frame to look appropriately sickly in possibly the least flattering role of her career.  It’s also very likely her best work on film: Moore is in virtually every shot, and creates a heartbreaking portrayal of a woman suffering from an ailment that very likely emanates from somewhere inside herself.  (She’s so good I’m willing to forgive a patently fake coughing fit she has early on!)

There are other notable performances from an eccentric supporting cast that includes Xander Berkeley, in yet another of his patented asshole hubbie/boyfriend roles (others can be found in CANDYMAN and HEAT); James Le Gros, who hams it up mightily as one of the mountain retreat’s nuttier residents; and onetime genre starlet Jessica Harper, best known for her roles in SUSPIRIA, THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and SHOCK TREATMENT, in an extended cameo.   All work together to create a masterwork in which every component is impeccable–impeccably dark, disturbing and impossible to ignore, much less forget.

Vital Statistics 

American Playhouse Theatrical Films/Chemical Films

Director: Todd Haynes
Producers: Christine Vachon, Lauren Zalaznick
Screenplay: Todd Haynes
Cinematography: Alex Nepomniaschy
Editing: James Lyons
Cast: Julianne Moore, Peter Friedman, Xander Berkley, James Le Gros, Susan Norman, Kate McGregor Stewart, Mary Carver, Steven Gilborn, April Grace, Peter Crombie, Ronnie Farer, Jodie Markell, Lorna Scott, Dean Norris, Jessica Harper