A clear-eyed look at suburban culture and illness that seems even more relevant twenty years later
Carol White (Julianne Moore, Magnolia) is an unassuming housewife in Los Angeles who seems to be suffering from a chronic illness. But she can’t get a clear word from her doctors and her life slowly deteriorates around her and she turns to several different forms of therapy to ease her symptoms.
The last decade or so has seen a tremendous revolution in terms of people thinking about their health outside the realm of medicine. Since World War II, there’s been a sense that scientific medicine could solve all of our problems with a pill or a surgery. But increasingly, experts are coming to realize that pills can’t solve everything and we may need to fundamentally change our lifestyles to maximize health. That’s emerged in things like the paleo movement as well as various exercise recommendations that claim sitting eight hours a day is as deadly as smoking in the long term.
Whether these turn out to be panaceas or not, there’s no denying that, at least in America, human life has transformed significantly over the last 100 years, from ubiquitous electricity and running water to suburban homes and significant automobile traffic. It’s no surprise that some people think our environment is killing us, and that external environment seems easy to blame when there are internal problems as well.
Todd Haynes knew that the match between external problems and internal feelings was worth exploring when he helmed his second feature Safe, which explores a woman’s life when she starts to become overly sensitive to the elements around her. It’s a searing, difficult exploration of suburban ennui that cemented both Haynes and star Julianne Moore as forces to be reckoned with. Criterion does an excellent job bringing this classic to hi-def.
Todd Haynes made his first short film in 1978 (“The Suicide,” included in this release), and continued to make short films throughout the 1980s. His most famous, of course, is Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which incorporated Carpenter’s music set to stop-motion animated Barbie dolls to tell the story of Karen Carpenter’s struggles with bulimia.
That kind of choice should have killed his career … not only did he not respect the Carpenters’ music copyright, the subject of the film was lurid and reveled in the backstage stories that Hollywood likes to repress. It didn’t help that there were veiled references to Richard Carpenter being gay and Karen fantasizing about being spanked by her father. Somehow, though, that didn’t kill Haynes’ career, and his next big project was Poison, a feature that tells three different stories in three different generic styles. It helped launch the New Queer Cinema, but stayed largely on the margins of the cinematic world.
I don’t normally belabor the history behind a given filmmaker, but I think it’s important here, because almost nothing about Safe could be predicted from Haynes’ previous efforts. Prior to Safe, his films had all basically been shorts (even Poison was three different narratives), and though Superstar focused on a female character, most of Haynes’ energy seemed to lie with male figures. And, frankly, though I love Haynes’ early work, very little of it is subtle. The gay themes and the love-hate relationship with popular culture are all over the early work and pretty unambiguous for all that.
In contrast, Safe is a subtle, unnerving portrait of a woman that can be read in a number of different, and perhaps contradictory, way.
It could be a kind of suburban malaise film, putting it in the same league as The Ice Storm or even Belle Du Jour, where a woman who has been sidelined into her tract home stumbles through disappointment and disaffection. It could also be a suburban horror film, where instead of a monster or slasher running about it’s the houses and streets themselves that seem to threaten Carol. Perhaps it’s a subtle portrait of mental illness, as Carol slowly slides into depression, one that not even a guru can alleviate and one that attacks her body as well as her mind. Or perhaps the film is a stinging indictment of modern living, with Los Angeles and its cars and electricity threatening basic human lives with modern convenience.
Whichever interpretation you ultimately choose, Safe has two important things going for it. The first is Julianne Moore. Moore had appeared in a number of films already … The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, The Fugitive, Shortcuts … but Safe was the first time she was really let loose as the star of a feature film. It’s difficult to imagine all the great performances since, from The Big Lebowski to Children of Men, without Carol. Moore is a picture of control, ruthlessly allowing herself to disappear in front of the camera, a kind of anti-star power that few actresses could muster. The other actors in the film are fine … including Xander Berkeley as Carol’s milquetoast husband … but the film belongs to Moore.
The film’s other strength is Todd Haynes’ eye. Over several projects (most obviously Far From Heaven), Haynes has shown himself totally immersed in and aware of the tropes of melodrama. Here, though, he abandons them to offer a much cooler, more subdued take on the “woman’s picture.” There are a lot of static, almost-painterly compositions in the film, which shows us Carol as part of her environment almost to the point that she disappears into it. These shots are both beautiful to look at but also serve character and story in a way that’s masterful. It’s no surprise that Haynes would continue to work with Moore fruitfully after this picture.
Criterion have done a masterful job releasing the film on Blu-ray. The foundation of the release is a new 4K scan of the original negative that’s presented in a wonderful 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer. The print is in pristine condition, and detail is amazing throughout. Everything from close-ups on Carol’s face to wide shots of Los Angeles looks crisp and clear. Colors showcase a surprisingly wide gamut, with plenty of subtle gradations in the greens surrounding the city. Black levels are deep and consistent, and no problematic digital artifacts crop up. The film gets a LPCM 1.0 mono track that keeps dialogue clean and clear while balancing the excellent sound design and music choices.
Extras start with a commentary featuring Haynes, Moore and producer Christine Vachon ported over from the previous DVD release. The trio, especially Haynes and Moore, are talkative, providing lots of background on the film, including its themes and production. A new video interview with Moore and Haynes deepens the conversation, giving us a lot of depth on Carol and Moore’s performance. Vachon appears again for an interview, primarily discussing her working relationship with Haynes over several films. Perhaps the most interesting extra is “The Suicide,” Haynes first short film from 1978. Though lost until a year before this release, the film is about bullying and already shows Haynes has a strong sense of style. It’s a bit rough-looking and probably won’t get repeat viewings, but it’s a nice addition. The usual Criterion booklet is a fold-out style leaflet with an essay by film programmer Dennis Lim.
Though it wasn’t recognized at the time, Safe has become a new classic, proving that both Julianne Moore and Todd Haynes have been masters of their respective crafts from the beginning. The fact that the film’s clear-eyed look at suburban culture and illness seems even more relevant twenty years later certainly helps. Now a new generation of fans can enjoy or discover the film thanks to this near-perfect Blu-ray edition of the film from Criterion.