At the hair salon: Julianne Moore gets a perm, then a nosebleed
So, here's my pick for favorite American movie made in the last ten years: Safe (1995) by Todd Haynes. (David Lynch's Mulholland Drive runs a close second.)
Safe is about a Southern California wife and mother, Carol White (played by Julianne Moore), who begins to develop an allergy to her environment, in essence to life in the modern world. After her symptoms escalate — beginning with a benign sneeze and "bless you" in the opening scene, moving on to coughing, throwing up, nosebleeds and finally, severe seizure — she leaves the city, her husband and her step-son for a New Age retreat in the country, hoping to be cured. The illness remains a mystery, and the ending is as happy or sad as we want it to be. (No surprise: I lean towards the latter.) A few thoughts:
Safe is a sort of horror movie, but not your usual kind: In its most visceral scene, a single droplet of blood emerges from Julianne Moore’s nose.
An inventory of substances that casually flit across the screen during the movie, usually in the background: truck exhaust fumes, viscous perm gloop, hissing air freshener, roach bomb clouds, sticky cabinet paint, jets of hairspray, large dollops of supermarket ice cream.
- “You know our couch? Our beautiful couch?.…Totally toxic.”
Haynes’ use of detachment and distance is truly inspired: stationary, unruffled camera; very few close-ups; lots of long shots; a quiet, eerie pace; and, like Hitchcock, a careful calm focus on the details of mundane activities that immediately precede a crisis event.
Horror movies need monsters, either inside or outside of us. It’s never clear exactly who or what the monster is here. Is it the environment? The chemical aquaria we live in? Our fears and anxieties? Our every thought of self-blame? I’ve seen this movie four times, and depending on my mood, I gravitate towards one or the other, or some mixture of these.
Is Safe a satire of New Age-ism? It didn't strike me that way at first, but it may well be. What makes this so un-obvious is Haynes' ambivalence for Wrenwood, the New Age retreat, which complicates our inference. On the DVD commentary track, he says that when the film first showed at Sundance, he was disappointed that the audience was confused (does this guy approve of New Age healing or is he satirizing it?) He wanted the audience to lean towards the latter, so he added one extra shot of a mansion on the hill that belongs to the retreat's CEO. Ironically, this shot barely changes the ambiguity with which we view the film.
Minutiae for fellow music obsessives: Carol's aerobics class works out to Madonna's "Lucky Star", and George Benson's "Turn Your Love Around" plays in her house. I've always liked both these pop tunes, but Haynes really meant them to signify generic 80s lite-FM. Funny tidbit: When his music supervisor picked an Aretha tune (off Who's Zoomin' Who, perhaps?), Haynes nixed it because he had too much respect for the song! Carol's insomnia is scored by Brian Eno's "Slow Water". (Haynes opened his next movie, Velvet Goldmine, with Eno's "Needles in the Camel's Eye".)
I found in my journal a sentence I scribbled years ago when I first heard Haynes on the DVD commentary track: "This is fascinating: he talks about the movie as if someone else had created it, as if it had a life completely of its own with no connection to him, as if he were trying to "read" the movie like anyone else."
Safe is part of a series of Haynes movies about women and their illnesses: Karen Carpenter’s anorexia in Superstar and Julianne Moore’s spiritual sickness in Far From Heaven.
This could easily be a movie about AIDS (another immunity-disorder sickness like environmental illness), not to mention an allegory about the personal identity challenges of being gay in a heterosexual environment. (Haynes is gay and was part of the New Queer Cinema of the 1980s.)
Safe is wonderfully — and disturbingly — undidactic. We almost want it to tell us: chemicals are bad; suburban living is unhealthy; New Age-ism is bananas; our society is built on a structure of falsehoods and systematic denial. Safe hints at these things but never explicitly connects Carol's illness to them. That is a connection Haynes will not make for us. It remains for us to make. Or not.
And now, back where we started: your personal pick for favorite American movie of the last ten years? And why? I'd love to know.