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Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment

Starring Julianne Moore

Written and directed by Todd Haynes

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

The 1990s may well have been a heyday for edgy, independent films, but as with any popular trend in cinema, the touchstones of this movement were quickly appropriated and anesthetized by the Hollywood studios while the indie factories began churning out flaccid cookie-cutter imprints of their most successful products. Soon video stores were cluttered with a glut of low-budget existential dramedies about hit-men and kinky sex, and suddenly the indie idea pool was revealed to be amazingly shallow.

Because so many indie films look and sound alike, it's no surprise at all that the very best of the decade cut its own unique and virtually invisible path. Todd Haynes' brilliant, haunting 1995 effort Safe contains no violence, almost no sex, features no assassins nor whores nor teenagers coming of age, nor does it harbor any shocking profanities, chic cynicism, nor ironic pop-culture references, and it was not shot with a shaky handheld camera or edited with narrative disregard or left with deliberately "rough" edges. Safe, you see, is that rare movie about an idea. And it is one of the most riveting, disturbing, and telling films about the American psyche in the last 20 years.

Julianne Moore — in a role even this excellent actress will have difficulty exceeding — stars as Carol, a wealthy housewife drifting aimlessly through her perfect life. She has a spacious and impersonal house, a remote and passionless marriage, friends preoccupied with new diets and self-help philosophies, and an illness. It begins with a sneeze. Then there is coughing. And a nose bleed. Although Carol's doctor insists that she's healthy, she is seized by violent attacks of hyperventilation. Her husband impatiently endures this mysterious sickness, and her friends talk about it in hushed tones when she's not in the room. Some suggest it is a psychological affliction, others proffer that she may be allergic to the chemicals in her environment. One thing is in no doubt: Carol is wasting away.

The variety of ways in which Haynes could have trampled on his subject matter are innumerable, ranging from movie-of-the-week pathos to the daft satire of Lily Tomlin's The Incredible Shrinking Woman. Blessed with unusual intelligence, however, Haynes lays out his film with a cold, clinically objective approach. He traps Carol in a blurry struggle between physical symptoms, neurotic speculation, and psychosomatic anxiety, and never betrays his own theories on the truth behind her malady. Even as Carol withdraws to a cult-like wellness commune, Haynes avoids poking fun at easy targets, and instead focuses his controlled camera squarely on Carol's fragile ego.

Because of Haynes' impartial point-of-view, Safe is that rare work of art which viewers approaching it from different paradigms might see entirely differently. Some may see the film as a tragic, truthful depiction of the ravages of capitalism, consumerism and pollution, while another viewer might find it a savagely funny dissection of new-age neuroses, or even a David Cronenberg-style horror flick minus the gore, or possibly bits of each. Haynes' work is quietly virtuoso, patiently framing interior actions, making economic use of camera movement, and bravely holding onto unblinking long shots unnerving in their directness. Visually, the film is exquisite and mature, and its atmosphere is one of unnerving calm smothering great distress.

Haynes' has an unerring empathy, but also an absolutely unique point-of-view on psychological illness, which he also explored in his infamous underground cult movie Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, depicting the 1970s' singer's fatal bout with anorexia — played out by animated, deteriorating Barbie dolls. As this 1987 short film is currently only shown illegally due to its unauthorized use of unlicensed Carpenter's music, Safe more than suffices in not only brandishing Haynes' particular genius, but also exploring one of the most chilling symptoms of the modern malaise.

While it's great to finally see Safe in its carefully planned widescreen glory, Columbia TriStar's 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer lacks detail and also, bizarrely, occasionally briefly turns on its English subtitles during shots of printed materials (but this could be the result of either a disc error or just the settings of our review hardware). Ed Tomney's unsettling score and Haynes' perfect sound design sound great in Dolby 2.0 Surround. The DVD also features a conversational, occasionally enlightening commentary with Haynes, Moore, and producer Christine Vachon.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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