Back in 1993, I attended grad school and I rented a room in a house near school and my part-time job. At one point during my 18-month stay there, a woman named Jennifer became an occupant. Jennifer was thin and frail, and she displayed a permanent “deer in the headlights” expression. Jennifer wore a surgeon’s mask most of the time due to “environmental allergies” she claimed to have.
These were news to me and my housemates, but Jennifer stated that she experienced severe reactions to various chemicals that appeared in day-to-day life. However, it wasn’t just the unfamiliar nature of the allergies that made us doubtful. Frankly, Jennifer was such an unpleasant and self-absorbed person that it was difficult to sympathize with her; she presented such an out-of-kilter personality that we felt most - if not all - of her woes were mental, not physical.
Since that time, I’ve learned more information that supports the validity of these allergies, but there remains a certain level of uncertainty about the problems. 1995’s Safe came out not long after my experiences with Jennifer, and it takes a look at others who suffer from such maladies.
Safe focuses on meek housewife Carol White (Julianne Moore), an upper-middle-class woman who lives with her husband Greg (Xander Berkeley) and stepson Rory (Chauncey Leopardi). Immediately we see that she’s barely connected to her existence; from the emotionless sex she has with Greg to the superficial and banal chats with her “friends”, Carol’s life comes across as little more than bland window-dressing.
However, she soon starts to develop an odd illness. Carol feels tired and headachy most of the time, and she gets nosebleeds at unusual times. Doctors provide no help, and psychiatrists also cannot discern a viable diagnosis; one claim of “stress” seems laughable given Carol’s lifeless existence. Eventually she learns of environmental illnesses, and she buys into this concept as the cause of her woes.
From there Carol becomes a more active personality, as her disease starts to define her. Various interventions fail to stem its tide, however, as Carol gets more and more ill. Eventually she decides to go to a special “camp” for environmentally sick people; called Wrenwood, this New Age center purports to teach sufferers how to deal with their problems.
While some aspects of her stay seem positive - she actually focuses on emotions and thoughts for the first time in who knows how long - Carol’s illness doesn’t dissipate. If anything, it gets worse, as the Carol we see by the end of the film clearly looks to be in bad shape.
As he notes in the DVD’s production notes, writer/director Todd Haynes followed the standard TV movie formula for Safe, but the result seems quite different from the usual soppy melodrama. For one, it’s told with a Kubrickian lack of sentiment. Stanley’s influence appears pervasive across Safe, from production design to photographic techniques. However, it’s probably through the fairly dispassionate distance Haynes keeps from the characters that Safe most resembles a Kubrick piece; the film never goes far to cross the boundaries that separate us from the participants, and we remain somewhat disconnected to them.
Actually, I should replace “them” with “her”, for Carol is really the film’s only substantial character. Almost all of the scenes feature Moore, and she remains the sole focal point; all of the personalities appear as little more than walk-on bits and they all seem very secondary. Carol doesn’t receive a lot of exposition in the traditional sense. We learn exceptionally little about her past, and what we do glean arrives through casual conversation. For example, we discover that Rory comes from Greg’s prior relationship. However, we don’t find out much about her life other than the superficial day-to-day aspects such as her struggle to get the right couch delivered.
The film’s failure to deliver much nuance about Carol’s existence isn’t a failing in the storytelling. It has to occur simply because Carol almost totally lacks any depth. She’s a bland personality who borders on a blank slate. Her life seems defined by her relationship to other people and things, and she appears to have few convictions or ideas.
This aspect of her character is what adds life to Safe because the way it combines with the newness of the environmental illness substantially muddies the waters. Carol isn’t some Terms Of Endearment-style feisty heroine who battles against a known disease. Instead, she’s a dull person who seems to almost enjoy her sickness. For the first time perhaps ever, Carol has a goal and a purpose, and she has something unusual to define her.
As such, Safe takes a very wary viewpoint toward the illness itself that doesn’t seem different from the thoughts of my old housemates and myself. I never truly scoffed at the notion of the disease because I really didn’t know anything about it. However, Jennifer came across as such a neurotic nutbag that it was awfully difficult to buy into most of it. One wanted to feel compassion for her, but she presented such a negative and passively-aggressive attitude that she made it exceedingly tough to care.
Safe captures these kinds of personalities neatly. It also refuses to clarify the veracity of the claims. At Wrenwood, no one ever seems to get any better, and Carol’s condition clearly deteriorates as she stays there. This appears to support the notion that many of her concerns were mental; she finally finds a personality as a sick person, and she unconsciously delights in the attention this accords her. After so many years of invisibility, her disease makes her stand out as someone different.
However, I definitely wouldn’t call this a happy conclusion. All Carol does is exchange one definition for another. However, the new one seems like progress since it puts her in a more active position; she’s actually doing something for once in her life. Unfortunately, the ultimate effect is negative since it provokes Carol to retreat further into her sickness.
I’d barely heard of Moore prior to Safe. I didn’t see the movie theatrically - actually, this DVD offered my first screening of it - but she received much praise for her performance, all of which seems to be deserved. Carol really isn’t a showy role, but that’s why Moore’s work appears so special. She creates such a believably timid personality without any excessive tendencies; some actors can create flamboyantly quiet people, but Moore’s Carol remains realistic. She fully inhabits the character and helps make the film work.
Safe falls short of greatness, but it’s definitely an interesting and unusual film. It creates an odd sort of horror piece in which the villain is virtually inescapable, but it’s more interior and psychological in nature. The movie takes an admirably distant approach to its subject and leaves many conclusions up to the viewer, all of which makes it more effective.
Safe appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Throughout the DVD, Safe betrayed its low-budget origins via a watchable but flat picture.
Sharpness largely appeared satisfying. A little softness cropped up during some interior shots, but for the most part, the movie looked concise and accurate. Some light moiré effects appeared, and I also saw periodic examples of edge enhancement.
Print flaws were a definite issue throughout the movie. I found examples of grit, speckles, nicks and hairs during much of the film. These didn’t seem to be heavy or totally pervasive, but they were excessive for such a recent movie, even one with a low budget.
Colors looked acceptably clear and accurate, though the film featured a subdued look that fit the piece. The hues offered solid tones for what they were, and the desaturated appearance of Safe made sense. Black levels were adequately deep and dark, and shadow detail usually appeared appropriately opaque but not excessively thick. As already noted, some interiors seemed a bit murky, but as a whole, the movie showed good clarity in the low-light sequences. Ultimately, Safe offered a watchable image that occasionally looked quite good. However, much of the film came across as flawed and drab, which resulted in a grade of “C+”.
Despite the case’s claim that Safe offered a Dolby Surround soundtrack, the resulting mix never branched out beyond the front center channel. This soundfield wasn’t glorified mono; it was true mono, as I detected no activity other than from the center. Granted, Safe didn’t require a slam-bang track, but some additional breadth would have been positive.
In any case, the quality of the audio seemed acceptable but bland. Dialogue appeared to be intelligible and reasonably natural, and I detected no problems related to edginess. Both effects and music sounded clear and lacked distortion, but they also featured very little range. Those elements failed to transmit much depth or dynamics, and ultimately they resulted in a lackluster piece. It stayed clean and listenable but nothing better than that.
Although Safe doesn’t include many extras, we find one potentially interesting piece: an audio commentary from writer/director Todd Haynes, actress Julianne Moore, and producer Christine Vachon. All were recorded together for this running, screen-specific track. Though the piece had a few good moments, as a whole I thought it was pretty drab.
For one, the commentary suffered from a surprising number of gaps given the format. I more easily forgive blank spots when only one person appears, or the film is very long. For three folks to discuss an average-length movie, the commentary shouldn’t feature as many empty spaces as this one did. In addition, many of their remarks were fairly dull. I heard a lot about how great everyone was, and they all laugh a lot as they watch the movie, though the reasons for this can be confusing; basically they seem to mock some of the characters’ flaws, as far as I can tell.
At times, some good tidbits emerge, especially from Moore, who reveals some of the ways she developed her role. After I listened to this track, I respected her work even more. However, I felt this commentary was fairly flat and lackluster, and it didn’t bring a great deal of information to the table.
Otherwise, Safe skimps on supplements. We get some very good text Director’s Production Notes in the booklet. Composed by Haynes, these include interesting interpretation and discussion of the film; as such, you definitely shouldn’t read them until you’ve seen the movie. In addition, we find Filmographies for writer/director Haynes and actors Moore, Berkeley and Peter Friedman. There are also trailers for Safe and 1999’s The End of the Affair, which starred Moore. The former really makes the movie look like a horror thriller! Note that though the booklet states the DVD includes a trailer for The Myth of Fingerprints, this wasn’t the case.
On the surface, Safe doesn’t look like much of a movie as it focuses on a woman who gets sick. It lacks the usual noble histrionics of that kind of flick as it takes a darker and more ambivalent tone. However, those attributes are what make it work. Safe provides a rich and unsettling piece accentuated by fine acting from Julianne Moore. The DVD itself is more of a mixed bag. Picture and sound are flawed due to the cheap production of the film, but they remain adequate. The DVD offers few extras, though the audio commentary adds a few interesting tidbits. Ultimately, Safe isn’t a great DVD, but the movie itself deserves your attention.