Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995) was voted the best film of the 1990s in a poll of critics conducted by the Village Voice (to be taken with a grain of salt, as usual; in a similar poll of the Best Films of the 20th Century, also conducted by the Village Voice but perhaps not taken from the same critics, the only film from the 1990s to make a showing was Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up, which came in at 64th). I had never seen Safe before The Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray edition, which came out yesterday, arrived, despite being an admirer of Haynes’ work and of Julianne Moore, Safe‘s star. I was excited, and perhaps my expectations were higher than is healthy or fair — but that didn’t matter. Safe is brilliant at executing one of my favorite tricks: making the mundane (in this case, the truly terribly mundane) horrific, without changing the basic nature of the mundane.
The basic concept underlying Safe is not particularly original, especially for readers of Don DeLillo. When the film begins, Carol White (Julianne Moore) appears to have things under control. It’s 1987 in the San Fernando Valley, and Carol has a home staffed to the brink; she need only ask for a glass of milk (a few times) and one is retrieved for her. She and her husband don’t have a bad relationship, and the biggest crisis of the day is that the furniture delivered to their home was black and not teal. Despite this comfort — and also because of it, if you see the film as I do — Carol develops some strange sickness. The doctors have no answer; indeed, they don’t think anything is actually wrong with Carol. But something is going on, else why the choking fits, why the panic attacks, why the nose bleeds, why the seizures?
Here’s where DeLillo comes in: One day Carol finds flyer that asks, “Are you allergic to the 20th century?” Seeking treatment, Carol finds her way to Wrenwood, where a self-help guru (Peter Friedman) advises her to withdraw from the world. Interestingly, that’s the answer and the disease, and watching how Haynes leads us to this contradictory resolution is as invigorating as it is disturbing.
It’s not just this exploration that makes Safe a masterpiece, though (in fact, similar explorations have been and are being made all the time); it’s also Haynes’ direction, something I don’t recall noting as anything particularly special in his other films I’ve seen, though I perhaps just wasn’t paying attention. In Safe, we ourselves might become sick of the atmosphere. The most benign moments are warped in front of eyes, not with the trickery of special effects but with subtlety of juxtaposition, mise-en-scene, and one particularly brilliant use of the dolly zoon.
When the film begins, we are driving through the suburban neighborhood at night. Nothing bad is happening — nothing bad is going to happen — and yet the musical score is one of dread and foreboding. The first sound we hear from Carol: a sneeze. A simple sneeze, coupled with that score (and with our knowledge of art history, where a sneeze is never just a simple sneeze), and the slow drive through the neighborhood and we might feel carsick, or shut in, ourselves.
As Haynes shoots the inside of the home, he generally sets up the camera, letting us see the architecture as Carol navigates through the house. It made me think of Kubrick’s The Shining. The beams overhead, the walls on the side, and Carol is, again, shut in, framed in her environment.
Early in the film, though after the framing has been established, Haynes uses an incredibly slow dolly zoom. Carol is drinking her milk, staring in the distance just past the camera. Then the foreground and the background slowly warp, suggesting her own world is shifting, but also giving us a sense of unease, of sickness, even, as we feel unmoored and dizzy.
Meanwhile, the score continues to softly suggest dread. This simple suburban home, where nothing terrible is happening, is now the place where the most intimate horror is playing out. It’s a fitting reference (and brings up an aspect I haven’t even touched on: motherhood) when Carol is asked to remember a room from her childhood; she cannot remember much, but she knows it had yellow wallpaper.
Yes, for those intrigued by the likes of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and who wish to see a modern-day take on the madwoman in the attic that also takes on societal issues that are still relevant twenty years later, this is a must . . . and it has me anxious to see his next film, out next year, Carol, which is not a sequel or prequel to Safe, but rather an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt.
While the supplements on the disc are slim, they are nevertheless of high quality.
First, we get a great commentary from 2001, featuring Haynes, Moor, and producer Christine Vachon. Besides the film itself, they talk about the production, of course, and making an independent film in the 1990s (the film premiered at Sundance), but they also talk about the critical reaction to the film, which wasn’t that great at first. Bringing the commentary up to date, and adding new insights, there also is a new 36-minute conversation between Haynes and Moore as well as a 16-minute interview with Vachon.
Also included is Haynes 1978 22-minute short film, The Suicide, made when Haynes was just 17 years old. Haynes only found the film again last year, after thinking it had been lost. I was surprised to find this film about a bullied boy nicely done.
The disc also contains a trailer, and the release contains a fold-out (yuck!) essay by Dennis Lim.