Safe (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In addition to a vast array of benefits, the industrialization of this planet has brought with it numerous problems. Chemicals, pesticides, and poisons are everywhere; pollutants clog the air. Most of us adjust, breathing in fumes with little more than a distasteful crinkling of the nose. There are those, however -- home-makers, mainly -- who suddenly and inexplicably become allergic to the 20th century. Afflicted with a malady called "environmental illness", a condition claimed to be psychosomatic by many doctors, these women and men suffer an immunity system breakdown that destroys their ability to enjoy contemporary urban life. To survive, they must seek the quiet solace of an out-of-the-way retreat where they can find a "safe room" and "clear" the poisons from their body.

Carol White (Julianne Moore) is one such woman. Once a content wife and mother in the San Fernando Valley, she can no longer cope with her environment. Car fumes cause her to choke, her new perm gives her nosebleeds, and she experiences a shortness of breath after eating certain foods. Conventional medicine is stumped, and her husband, Greg (Xander Berkeley), is losing patience with an illness that has no apparent cause. Eventually, Carol's quest for a cure leads her to a doctor who runs tests for environmental illness. After she is diagnosed as a victim, she enrolls in a wellness retreat in New Mexico called the Wrenwood Center -- a community of similar sufferers.

Director Todd Haynes (Poison) had a dual reason for making Safe. First, he wanted to fashion a satire of the modern-day, "yuppie" lifestyle -- a target ripe for skewering. Secondly, it was his intention to film a drama about the pain of environmental illness and the horrors of being treated at a place where feel-good therapy and group sessions are seen as the lone solution. Unfortunately, these two purposes are frequently in conflict. Haynes does an excellent job lampooning the shallow lifestyles of his protagonists, but the dramatic elements of the film don't work effectively in this caustic atmosphere. Several straight scenes cross over the line into self-parody. There's a fair amount of unintentional humor sprinkled among that which was scripted.

Julianne Moore (Short Cuts, Nine Months) gives a standout performance as the afflicted housewife, even though her character is little more than a thinly-drawn caricature. Carol doesn't come across as a real person -- she's another spoke in the wheel of Haynes' satire, a stereotype who decorates the house for her family, "does lunch" with her best friend, and endures her husband's insensitive lovemaking. Until her debilitating affliction is manifested, a crisis is when the furniture store delivers the wrong color couch. Carol's shallowness is one of the reasons why the director's dramatic efforts fall short. Without a fully-realized central character to care about, it's difficult to develop much sympathy for her tragic situation.

Haynes takes more than one jab at the kind of therapy that requires everyone to sit in a circle and expel their "negative impulses." Although he cleverly camouflages Carol's trip to the Wrenwood Center as the "cure" portion of the movie, his intentions are never to provide the happy resolution common to the "disease of the week" TV movie. Instead, he fires off a viciously satirical volley at this entire wellness process by showing how Carol's physical condition continues to deteriorate even as she embraces the views of her new community.

Although the major characters in Safe are heterosexual, Haynes, an openly homosexual film maker, states that he believes this to be a "gay film." It is, he says, an expression of his own thoughts and ideals, all of which are shaped by his sexual identity. Indeed, it isn't much of a stretch to see parallels between environmental illness and AIDS, and the director doesn't hesitate to put the screws to that portion of society best known for expressions of homophobia.

Certainly, Safe does not succeed at everything it attempts. The film is overlong and there are times when more aggressive editing might have improved the pace. However, despite certain dramatic shortcomings, Safe is an insightful and darkly comical social commentary. There's a lot of fodder for thought, both about the human capacity for foolishness in creating a world where this sort of disease can occur, and about society's views of those who fall victim to it. Safe takes risks, and that daring alone makes it worthwhile viewing. With a perspective reminiscent of the films of Michael Tolkin (The Rapture, The New Age), this picture is an independent movie in the truest sense of the word -- not simply because of who distributes it, but because of what it says and how it chooses to get that message across.

Safe (United States, 1995)

Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Peter Crombie, Peter Friedman, Kate McGregor-Stewart, James LeGros
Screenplay: Todd Haynes
Cinematography: Alex Nepomniaschy
Music: Ed Tomney
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1