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Safe (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on September 20, 2013

In addition to its aura of unease, its careful framing and its amazing performance by Julianne Moore, one of the most wonderful things about Safe is its endless potential for interpretation.  One can take it at face value: a study of the still controversial phenomenon of environmental illness.  Carol is a random victim of an immune disorder that radically increases her sensitivity to fumes and chemicals.  Pesticides, care exhaust, cosmetics, aerosol sprays… she is vulnerable to the everyday products we take for granted.

Or it can seen as allegory for the AIDS epidemic.  A largely unknown disease that breaks the immune system, blaming the victim, the discomfort of your loved ones, a separation from society.  There are multiple references to AIDS, and Todd Haynes was active in AIDS awareness and treatment organizations.  The Kaposi’s sarcoma that appears on her forehead is usually associated with AIDS.  The film is even set in 1987, a time when the disease was still mysterious and debated.

Or one can read it as an allergy to modern life.  Carol is reacting to the emptiness of her suburban existence: the mechanical sex, the quest for material goods, the vapid conversations (a discussion of the death of a close relative seamlessly segues into a discussion about a building contractor, with no change in tone), the utter lack of any creative, emotional or spiritual outlet.  And in the second half of the film, she reacts to the empty platitudes spouted by the cultish leader of a new agey retreat.  Far from the chemicals that are allegedly attacking her system, she continues to worsen in the face of meaningless feelgood nonsense.

Or it’s an existential piece.  Carol White is white: a blank slate, an emptiness (note how often she wears white, and the milk she drinks).  She seems to have no desires of her own.  Often she’s tiny in the frame, or shunted off to the margins.  Most of the time, she can barely get out a sentence in her meek little voice.  One of her most used phrases is “I’m sorry”, said in a tone that suggests she’s apologizing for her very existence (another is “I’m fine”, denying herself her own right to not be fine).  Carol’s body is simply following her orders, willing herself into a state of nothingness.  The director of the retreat tells her a story of looking into a mirror and saying “I love you” after losing everything material in the world and all that was left was herself.  When Carol mimics this behavior, there is no sense of triumph or revelation.  All that’s left is nothing.

What makes the movie so compelling is that it never slots neatly into any of these — or any other — interpretations.  It maintains its mystery even after many viewings.  Haunting and original and even done with some sly deadpan humor.  Moore was never better.  Rating: Masterpiece (96)


4 Responses to “Safe (rewatch)”

  1. JamDenTel said

    I need to see this one again. I saw it once, and…it didn’t do much for me. I won’t deny its capacity to provoke thought, but something about it–possibly the length, which I found excessive–left me cold.

  2. […] much depth and so many layers.  I don’t have anything else to say, I’m happy with my previous review.  No question, this will remain in my top 100.  Rating: Masterpiece […]

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