The late eighties/early nineties was a boon time for young visionary directors, but your Steven Soderbergs and your Quentin Tarantinos and even your Lars Von Triers had nothing on Todd Haynes. His first film starred a Barbie and Ken doll as Karen and Richard Carpenter. Despite the silly premise and the offensive blandness of The Carpenters’ music, Superstar not only wasn’t a joke but it was legitimately disturbing, depressing, and moving. His second film, Poison, fell in line with his AIDS-awareness activism, but did so with fearless originality, interpreting the writings of Jean Genet as a shuffled up portmanteau of horror, documentary, and prison mini-movies. Haynes’s activism became a lightning rod for some viewers, particularly those in the LGBT community, when he made his next and biggest budget (still under a million dollars) film to date. Because Safe dealt with disease, and featured implicit and explicit references to AIDS, other activists felt Haynes was selling out by making his main character a woman and her illness something other than AIDS.
Safe isn’t really about the illness though. It’s about the blank slate character—“a void” by Haynes own description— who suffers from it and finally comes into her own (sort of) as a result. As Dennis Lim points out in his essay for Criterion’s new blu-ray edition of Safe, such characters occur regularly in Haynes’s work, whether they are based on real-life shape shifters like Dylan (I’m Not There) and Bowie (Velvet Goldmine) or they’re original creations like Carol White.
Actually, Carol begins as something of a cliché: the classic gilded cage-bound, suburban wife. She orders expensive furniture to fill her time. She orders her Hispanic housekeeper around in her soft voice. She engages in uncomfortable-looking, obligatory sex with her boring husband. She does aerobics and goes to lunch and gets her hair done all with the same air of joylessness and emptiness. Then as Carol drives behind a truck on the expressway, she suffers a choking fit from its exhaust. At the salon, the chemicals used to curl her hair into an infantile Shirley Temple do make her nose bleed. She’s unable to breath after eating some cake at a baby shower. Her male doctors patronize her, insisting that there’s nothing medically wrong with her, but Carol continues to disintegrate. Then the setting radically shifts as Carol moves from the suburbs to a desert health commune for other people apparently suffering from an allergy to the twentieth century.
Safe isn’t as out-there as Superstar or Poison, but it remains a wholly original entity even as it exploits familiar suburban-death tropes; Haynes’s framing, which makes interiors look like cubby holes in a dollhouse, is very reminiscent of Kubrick; and the soundtrack regularly evokes Angelo Badalamenti’s ominous synth work for David Lynch. Also like Lynch, Haynes refuses to supply pat answers (is Carol physically or mentally ill? Is the commune doing her good or is it a cult just as destructive as her condition?) and refuses to choose a genre. Safe is a sort of modern “woman’s picture” melodrama, a dark comedy (check out the too-sparingly used James LeGros, who’s hilarious as Carol’s admirer), and a horror film (the final scene is bone chilling). It is also a powerful showcase for Julianne Moore, who plays Carol with girlish frailty and subtle authority, as when she quietly refuses her husband sex despite his petulance or when she reprimands a nurse for spraying chemical cleaners near her hospital bed. Her subtle reference to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s proto-feminist short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” may provide a clue to the point the film provocatively refuses to make in bold text.
Safe comes to blu-ray with the excellent audio and video we expect from Criterion, as well as some interesting bonuses. Pulled from the 2001 DVD is a commentary track by Haynes, Moore (seeing the final cut for the first time!), and producer Christine Vachon much, much more lighthearted than the film. Haynes discusses the challenges and solutions to making a relatively low-budget movie (basically, get your family involved), though a lot of the commentary is the trio just watching the movie. They get a lot more focused in a couple of brand new features: Vachon sits for a 15-minute interview in which she discusses her long-running working relationship with Haynes and the adverse reaction Safe encountered, and Haynes and Moore star in their own completely engaged, intellectually stimulating 35-minute chat, which delves deeply into the film’s inspiration, approach, and themes without ruining its essential ambiguity. The final extra is a recently unearthed 20-minute short called “The Suicide” that Haynes wrote and directed when he was 17. While the film is more rapidly cut than most of his mature work, his themes of alienation are present in this simple but powerful (and really depressing) piece about a slow-to-mature Middle School kid facing ridicule at a new school.
Get the Criterion edition of Safe on Amazon.com here: