(1995, Todd Haynes)
“I know it’s not normal but I can’t help it”
I love movies about quirky subject matter, especially when the subject matter has a sense of mystery about it. I love movies that make me wonder what the hell is going on, that make me feel uneasy but I still love every minute of them. Safe is one of those movies.
Safe is about a housewife named Carol White (Julianne Moore), who one day starts to get mysteriously ill, suffering random nosebleeds and coughing fits. When her doctors find her strangely healthy despite this, she discovers that she may have a strange illness known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, which is seemingly set off by chemicals in everyday life.
When you first watch Safe, it can seem incredibly boring and drab. Very little happens for the first half of the movie, and we spend much of the time just following a housewife around as she does housewife things. She buys a sofa, she doesn’t like it, so she gets it replaced. She does the shopping. She meets friends for lunch and gossip. Blah blah blah. So very bland.
But the whole time, something feels…off. The movie seems to be intentionally dull to make a statement on the life of a housewife. The friendships feel distant and unemotional. Carol’s marriage seems comfortable but free of romance. Everything feels so mundane. But on the edge of every shot is the feeling of something sinister creeping in. It’s hard to explain, but this blandness begins to feel wrong, and when Carol starts coughing and freaking out, it gets worse.
In the second half of the movie, this feeling of unease creeps into centre stage and never leaves. Carol visits a treatment centre out in the desert, but everything about the place feels terrifying. There appears to be very little actual medical treatment, and there are regular talks by the centre’s leader which resemble some kind of weird religious cult. Everyone at the centre comes across as nice, but falsely so, and it’s impossible to find any of it comforting, and yet Carol does.
Oh, and one of the patients is a strange man wrapped up in layers of knitwear who stumbles around the outer edges of the cabins on a regular basis. It’s like something from the SCP Foundation, and despite his brief appearance, the image of him sticks with you.
What’s more, Carol’s supposed illness progresses subtly. Throughout the movie, she gets more and more gaunt and covered in mysterious sores, but you barely notice these changes until you reach the end and realise how horrendous she looks. It’s a nice little effect that threw me when I realised it was happening, and I just had to applaud it.
Basically, Safe is a weird movie. It’s a movie that gets under your skin and keeps you in the dark. It stays deliberately vague by showing little by implying much. It’s a horror movie that never outright states what we should be scared of. And for this, it’s absolutely brilliant.
Where it isn’t brilliant is in just how difficult a movie it is. There are times when Safe can drag a little too much, and sometimes its general vagueness moves from intriguing to annoying. There are times where it’s far too easy to ask what the movie’s purpose is. Especially when the movie ends, leaving us with far too many questions, and without really providing an answer about what it’s trying to say overall.
That said, the fact I have so many questions and desperately want answers is a sign of how easy it is to get emotionally invested in the movie. Safe is a vague, confusing mess, but it’s deliberately made that way to make you uncomfortable, and it’s absolutely fantastic for it.
Starring Julianne Moore, Peter Friedman & Xander Berkeley
Written by Todd Haynes
Produced by Christine Vachon
Music by Brendan Dolan & Ed Tomney
Cinematography by Alex Nepomniaschy
Edited by James Lyons
Favourite Scene: When Carol has a mysterious coughing fit in a car park, that’s when you know something is seriously up.
Scene That Bugged Me: The incredibly unerotic sex scene the movie opens on feels completely unnecessary.
Watch it if: You like mysterious weird movies
Avoid it if: You’re expecting something straightforward
Posted on February 11, 2014, in 1990s, Horror, Mystery, Thriller and tagged julianne moore, multiple chemical sensitivity, peter friedman, safe, todd haynes, xander berkeley. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.