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.

Review copy courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Review copy courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

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.

Safe 1

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.

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By |2014-12-10T14:51:55-04:00December 10th, 2014|Categories: Todd Haynes|Tags: |4 Comments


  1. Lee Monks December 11, 2014 at 5:12 pm

    Excellent stuff, Trevor: I now have to hunt a copy down.

    I couldn’t find much in the revered Haynes film starring Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore (something Heaven?) but maybe that was my fault then: I don’t recall Safe getting particular raves at the time, either. But you do a good job of making this sound unmissable.

    I also mistrust these polls. Vertigo would win every single one for a good while, once Citizen Kane lost it’s stranglehold over the top spot. I can’t say either are as good as the best of Malick, Kubrick or Altman, say. But there you go!

  2. Trevor Berrett December 12, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    I liked Far from Heaven more with time, Lee, though I think Safe is head and shoulders about it.

    As for the polls — ha! Yes, always ridiculous, and yet . . . I love to see them! And while I love both Citizen Kane and Vertigo, neither are in my top ten (Vertigo is perhaps not even in my top five favorite Hitchcocks — maybe . . . I may have to see).

  3. Lee Monks December 12, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    I may have to rewatch it then – just don’t be bigging up Velvet Goldmine and make me revisit that!

    I liked the polls better when L’Avventura and The Red Shoes were winning, but yeah, it’s always good to see them. Dr Strangelove seemed to slip off them after a while: I think it’s a film of great moments that isn’t quite great maybe…but it was still always good to see such a film on there. And Mark Kermode always puts The Exorcist at #1. Truly fascinating…

  4. herblevy December 15, 2014 at 10:03 am

    Reading polls about pretty much any cultural category to compare whether your Top Five (with a final, added sixth), is nearly always a mistake. Partly because such polls are best used as references to films that you haven’t seen or might should reconsider, and partly because thinking of these polls as anything other than taking the pulse of the field.

    In particular, the methodology of the British Film Industry poll taken every ten years and published in Sight and Sound is very straight forward and it’s not anything like polls that you see elsewhere that rarely include silent, black&white, and or movies that were made before recent college graduates began watching movies. BFI asks hundreds of directors, critics, scholars programmers, and others deeply involved in film as an art to submit the ten films from history that they think are the best. The poll doesn’t give additional weight to how films are ranked the films on anyone’s lists. Each film on any list is given one point for being included. The resulting pool doesn’t reflect some conspiratorial sea-change in how interested parties have changed their minds about the relative value of Vertigo over Citizen Kane. It’s a simple count of how many of these film professionals included Vertigo in their list of ten great movies and how many included Citizen Kane. In 2012, Vertigo was on more lists.

    Considering such a list as anything other than an opportunity to think about viewing, or reviewing, some of the 2,045 films that were mentioned by one or more of the 846 participants which you’ve never seen or haven’t thought about much since you saw it last, is a waste of time.

    One’s favorites may or may not be ranked near the top, but the process is as fair as it can be. And, given the scale of the poll and the quality of the participants, just about any film on the list is probably worth watching at least once by anyone who claims to care about film.

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