Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Julianne Moore
First things first: massive thanks to Chip of Tips From Chip for supplying me the opportunity to actually watch this film. Talk about fortuitous timing: the day this was announced as an upcoming Movie of the Week at Squish’s 1001 Movies Blog Club was the same day that I got my flashdrive in the mail from Chip with, amongst other things, this film on it. So a big yay for that, because otherwise, it would have been much more difficult trying to track this one down.
Second things second: I have a fairly massive girl crush on Julianne Moore. The woman can do no wrong for me. I am not one to try to see an entire actor’s filmography, mostly because I know that there tends to be a ton of junk in any actor’s filmography, but Julianne Moore is one for whom I would make an exception. Even if her movie is crap, her presence alone is enough to make me enjoy it. Laws of Attraction is proof positive of that. How on earth she has not yet won an Oscar is completely beyond me. The fact that she’s “only” been nominated four times is also completely crazy. At least to me.
Safe, then, is all about Julianne Moore (which is a-okay with me). Moore plays Carol, a diminutive, sheepish, and insipid affluent suburban housewife in 1987 California. Carol has unfulfilling sex with her husband (Xander Berkeley), shallow conversations with her friends, and redecorates her house with full-on eighties décor. Slowly, very slowly, Carol starts to get sick. It starts with just a general fatigue, but it escalates to respiratory problems and even collapse. Indignant doctors tell her nothing is actually wrong with her and refer her to a psychiatrist, who is equally unhelpful. Frustrated, Carol hears of “environmental illness,” where a person becomes allergic to the chemicals associated with modern society, and concludes this is her malady. When she sees an advertisement for a New Age-esque retreat for people suffering from environmental illness, she decides to join.
This movie, as I said before, is all about Julianne Moore. There is hardly a scene without Carol; this is Carol’s tale, through and through, and she is an intriguing character. She’s intriguing BECAUSE she is so insipid, BECAUSE she doesn’t come across as the brightest bulb in the box. She’s not a blithering idiot, but she’s living an extraordinarily superficial life that lacks any sort of real emotional connections or fulfillment. Watching something serious happen to someone who is so unable to deal with it is interesting. More than that, it’s interesting watching the people in Carol’s life react to Carol’s illness. Everyone in Carol’s life is frighteningly detached, each floating along, turning a blind eye to anything too substantive. Her husband is supportive to a degree, but also frustrated and somewhat skeptical. Her friends are kind to her in person, but discuss her behind her back. Not nastily, but nonetheless with an air of gossip around it. She explains her illness to her best friend, who barely reacts to her. Does Carol feel her husband’s skepticism of her? Can she tell that her friend is tuning her out? For my money, I don’t know, but that’s a good thing. Moore is so phenomenal at hinting at Carol’s depths that it’s entirely possible Carol is taking in everything around her but choosing to continue along her chosen path. Carol has a very, very slow decline, and Moore slowly, ever so slowly, dials up the illness and the paranoia. To go to a musical analogy, one of the hardest things to do is a slow crescendo or slow decrescendo. I love Ravel’s “Bolero,” but I’m glad I’ve never performed it, and I would never WANT to perform it. The entire piece is a twelve minute long crescendo. The amount of control required to do that is immense, and I honestly doubt that I lack the discipline as an instrumentalist to pull off such a feat. And yet, that is precisely what Moore does with Carol. She slowly and carefully takes Carol’s world of vapid baby showers and dull dinner parties and removes Carol from it. It’s so impressive. She’s so awesome. Man, I love her. Can I marry Julianne Moore?
Moore’s performance, as awesome as it is, would not have happened without Todd Haynes and his direction. The shot composition is always incredibly mindful not of Carol, but Carol’s surroundings and how she fits into them. So often, Haynes shoots Carol as small, very small, and from very far away. He creates a distance between Carol and the camera, highlighting her isolation and lack of meaningful connections. We see Carol’s house, with its fashionable décor and trendy eighties colors, but it is overpowering in its garish grandeur. Carol is simply existing in this vast, grand space. When Carol has to deal with a “trauma” at her house (the delivered couch was the wrong color), she is shot from afar in a very large warehouse with a very tall ceiling. At the psychiatrist’s office, Carol is like a tiny mouse huddled on the couch, too timid to speak up. The taciturn psychiatrist is of little help, and once again, the space threatens to overwhelm her. Lastly, Carol’s New Age-y retreat is in the middle of the desert, surrounded by nothing BUT empty spaces. Perhaps it is my slight agoraphobia speaking, but I felt these spaces acutely. They made me feel uncomfortable. Perhaps they made Carol feel uncomfortable as well.
In addition to the physical sense of emptiness in this movie, Haynes uses very sparse dialogue. There’s a tremendous amount of silence. Words are few, far between, and hollow. All of this paints a picture of Carol’s sad little life. In a heartwrenching scene, Carol is frightened, crying in bed. She cries out to her husband, “Where am I?” All he replies is “We’re in our house. Greg and Carol’s house.” The silence that punctuates this sentence is consuming. On top of all of this sense of disconnect, Haynes makes a very interesting choice. He layers on a classic, threatening horror movie soundtrack. Nothing that happens in the film is anywhere close to classic horror trappings, but by combining the sense of emptiness and a lack of an explanation for Carol’s distress with freaky synthesizer effects, Haynes effectively increases the tension throughout the film. He turns the screw for the audience, over and over again, making us feel like we should anticipate something awful happening. Much in the same way that Haneke takes a fairly straightforward and somewhat nontraditional horror premise in Caché and makes me squirm with fright, Haynes does it here by hinting that suburbia is entirely capable of overwhelming and overtaking a susceptible soul.
|Try to find Carol in this shot. She gets eaten up by her "perfect" home.|
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: I really like ambiguity in film. I like directors who can trust that their audience is smart enough to think on their own. I like having choices presented to me without answers. Safe is totally and completely that kind of film. Haynes never spells out what exactly is causing Carol’s illness, and that, to me, is a major strength of this film. While I can understand how it might frustrate some viewers, it enthralls me. Haynes hints that Carol’s illness may be entirely in her head, but he doesn’t commit either way. There are arguments both for and against this. Is she really becoming allergic to her environment, or is she simply so bored with her vapid existence that she concocts something to do with her life out of nothing? That isn’t the only unanswered question, though. The retreat that she moves to in the second half of the film raises entirely new issues. Is this a legitimate holistic medical treatment facility, or a cult? How much is it actually helping Carol? Are they brainwashing her or has she found a legitimate spiritual connection?
So here’s what I have to say about all of this. Personally, I think Carol’s “illness” (note the quotation marks) is entirely psychosomatic. She’s so superficial, so bored, that the nothingness of her life starts to consume her. Desperate for an answer, she latches on to this “environmental illness” thing because it’s vague enough to explain her symptoms. The retreat is essentially a cult in disguise that makes Carol feel her “illness” is legitimate, but in doing so, pushes her further down the rabbit hole of obsessive behavior.
All of the above paragraph is my personal interpretation of the film. And isn’t that a glorious thing? I was raised by my parents, and my father is one of the most skeptical people I have ever met. I am all about science and rational explanations. I hate the use of the phrase “chemicals,” because seriously, everything around us is made of chemicals. Water’s a chemical, for crying out loud, so when I see people falling back on vague, generic, and incorrect terms like that, my skeptic senses are sent tingling. Carol blames “chemicals” for her illness, and I call foul. Furthermore, I rather detest New Age-y touchy-feely nonsense (that’s putting it lightly), so as soon as Carol gets to her retreat, I start to feel uneasy. I feel it’s a trap, meant to lure unwitting outsiders into its clutches. Hence, I make the decision it’s a cult.
But all of this, ALL OF THIS, is because of who I am as a person. Who I am, what I believe in, how I was raised. I use these things to interpret Safe, because Haynes left enough open-ended and balanced representations in his film for me to do that. This is precisely what Abbas Kiarostami is all about, and the film that I was most reminded of after I finished watching Safe was Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us. The glorious thing is that Haynes is restrained enough for me to understand that HE is not telling me these things, but that I am connecting the dots he drew in my own particular way. I fully admit that Carol’s retreat is not necessarily a cult; it just feels that way TO ME. To others, others who believe more in holistic healing than I do, the retreat probably feels like a very sensible place for Carol to recover. Haynes’ direction allows them to make that conclusion, and for me to make mine. And I really respect that.
Safe is hardly mainstream America’s cup of tea. It’s quiet, it’s slow, it has a sense of superficial detachment that is hardly warm and fuzzy, and it refuses to provide easy answers. This will appeal to a very distinct audience, however, and is worth seeing just for Moore’s outstanding performance alone. Sure, I’m a Julianne Moore fangirl, but even I think her turn as Carol ranks among her strongest performances. Go in with an open mind, be prepared for a slow story, and let it pull you along for the ride.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10. Not for everyone, but very intriguing nonetheless.