Monday, June 6, 2011


In 'Safe' Todd Haynes brought depth to a character (a ditsy housewife/homemaker) that's usually portrayed as shallow or simple in other films. And without ever using terms like "AIDS" or "HIV", he was able to make one of the greatest films on the subject (or just one of the greatest films in general). Todd Haynes described his 2nd feature as a "horror movie of the soul" which is probably the best description ever. 'Safe' is also very much a "body horror". In the film we follow a California housewife ("Carol", played by Julianne Moore) who develops a mysterious/idiosyncratic "environmental illness" where she becomes overly sensitive to sprays, deodorants, hair gel, fumes, processed food and pretty much everything else around. As time progresses she becomes weaker, is forced to use an oxygen tank, and she eventually develops bruises & legions all over her face. Things become so bad that she eventually has to go live in a commune with other people who have the same illness as her. Even though this commune appears to be helpful, Haynes kind of leaves the idea open that it could very well be a cult (everyone wears very similar outfits and the "head"/leader of the organization/commune lives in a big mansion overlooking everyone almost like he's L Ron Hubbard).
Haynes also hints at the possibility that this "sickness" could all be in Carol's head.
As we all know, the "body horror" genre is led by key figures like Cronenberg ('naked lunch', 'crash', 'scanners', 'the fly, 'dead ringers'), Frank Henenlotter ('basketcase' & 'frankenhooker') or more recently, 'Marina De Van' ('in my skin'). What these movie all share besides the obvious themes of body mutilation and transformation (which is something that does happen to Julianne Moore in 'Safe') is that all these films are pretty graphic and bloody. In 'Safe' there is almost no blood (outside of one scene where Carol gets a nose bleed) yet the tone of the film is still creepy & unsettling (you could even go so far as to call 'Safe' a science fiction tale as well).

Up until this film which was made in the mid-90's, almost every major film regarding AIDS focused on homosexuals, as if it was just a gay issue (which, as we all know, is what many people thought it was back in the 80's). Todd Haynes, who is gay, took the most unlikely person to be associated with AIDS (an upper-middle class, heterosexual, white woman) to show that anyone could contract it. 

One of best scenes in the film is when Carol goes to visit a friend; "Linda" (another stay-at home housewife) whose brother has just passed away. There's a lot of whispering and quiet talking between the two, but there's a casual/brief hint that makes it obvious that Carol's friend's brother died of AIDS.

-Carol: (inquiring about how her friend's brother died)  It...wasn't...
-LindaThat's what everyone keeps...Not at all. Because he wasn't married...It's just so unreal. 

'Safe' wasn't the first time Haynes addressed AIDS in an abstract way. In his debut; 'Poison', one of the three stories involves a scientist who captures the "sex drive" in a test tube, and accidentally drinks it (this story was shot in the style of an old roger corman/vincent price/ black & white B-movie). He slowly turns in to a half man/half monster (with disgusting bumps on his face) who causes other people to look the same when they come in contact with him. Eventually the entire town becomes infected. And just like with 'Safe', Haynes addressed the issue of AIDS without any mention of homosexuality or using the actual term at all. Don't get me wrong, a movie like 'Philadelphia' is an important & powerful film, but i like how Haynes took a serious issue in his first two films, and addressed them in a more subtle, low-key & clever way.

There is a heavy Kubrick influence here. From the creepy score, which is similar to the music in 'The Shining' (as well as Lynch's 'Mulholland Drive'), to the bold, head-on interior shots in 'Safe', Kubrick echoes all throughout the film.


Interior shots from Various Kubrick films...

What's also so great about 'Safe' is that it not only speaks to people dealing with AIDS, but it can also be viewed as a comment on all diseases & sicknesses depending on how you look at it. 
There's profound a scene when Peter (the leader of the commune the Carol goes to stay with) preaches to one of the other environmentally sick residents whose husband has just died...

-Nell: First, I got sick, and my husband thought I was crazy. And then he got sick the same way.

-Peter: What was happening in your life around the time you first...How were you   feeling when you first got sick?

-Nell: I just wanted to get a gun...and blow off the heads of everyone who got me  like this.

-Peter: Nobody out there made you sick. You know that. The only person who can make you get sick is you, right? Whatever the sickness, if our immune system is's because we have allowed it to be...through exactly the kind of anger you're showing us now. Does that make sense? Does anybody have a problem with that?

That's a hell of a thing to generalize, but he does have a point. Not everyone can control as to whether they contract a disease or not, but in my case what Peter says holds a lot of truth. The fact that i needed a kidney transplant at such a young age falls completely on me. As a diabetic, i didn't manage my disease well (knowing what the repercussions would be if i didn't), and I got kidney disease. There's no one to blame for that except myself. 

One issue some people have with 'Safe', is that they feel that Carol didn't grow by the end of the movie. In the end, Carol gives a somewhat empty and nonsensical speech which makes her look like the "airhead" she was at the beginning. But i think she makes huge strides. She made the decision on her own to go investigate and research her illness. And it was her choice to go off and live with the commune of other sick people. Those kind of decisions take a lot (especially from someone like Carol). So she may not be the smartest person by the end of the movie, but she still changed. 'Safe' is one of those movies that gets a ton of accolades and awards, but i come in contact with so many people who have yet to actually see it. At the moment, the DVD is out of print, but is still easy to access (*edit* this was written in 2011 before the release of the criterion disc). 
In fact, the Village Voice (an opinion i sometimes trust), voted 'Safe' the best movie of the 90's.



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