Logline: An affluent and unexceptional homemaker in the suburbs develops multiple chemical sensitivity.
We are one with the power that created us. We’re safe and all is well in the world.
By the time these words are spoken in Safe, these words carry a vague, queasy intensity that is immediately disquieting. One of the many triumphs of director Todd Haynes’ film Safe is taking the audience on a journey where for the first half of the film a tantalizing mystery is presented where it is revealed that the conflict lies in the too-easy answers, not the questions.
It is the mid-eighties. On the surface, Carol White (Julianne Moore) is the embodiment of the American dream. She has an affluent lifestyle, a group of supportive friends, and few worries. However, in actuality she is a shell of a person with no control over her life. She spends her husbands money, dictates orders to the maid, passively helps with her stepson. She unconsciously does her best to disappear and become a vessel that speaks only in fragments and does what she is told. Her life has no meaning.
One day that becomes more difficult. Carol begins coughing uncontrollably and that triggers a progression of more serious illnesses (hyperventilating, grand mal seizures) that disrupt her non-life. People that would likely prefer to pretend she doesn’t exist are suddenly inconvenienced by her. Suddenly she cannot fade into the background and after a lackluster medical exam she is sent to a psychiatrist and begins to search for her own answers. However, with the “person” she is and without the support to deal with crises what will she turn to?
It is here where Safe pivots and Carol’s search for answers lays the groundwork for a devastating satire that is more relevant now than ever. It has been 20 years since Safe and Julianne Moore’s brilliant character study- in one of her first starring roles- remains one of her best. She takes a woman who it would be easy to hate and makes her an overwhelmingly empathetic character while being exceedingly honest about her faults and naivete.
It is worth noting that both Todd Haynes and indie super-producer Christine Vachon (Kids, Boys Don’t Cry) have teamed up on several different projects with Moore since Safe was released which speaks to the success and longevity of this creative team. Vachon produced the Haynes directed Moore in Far From Heaven and Vachon also produced Moore’s Oscar winning turn in Still Alice.
Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore discuss Safe for Criterion Collection: