Julianne Moore gives a breakthrough performance as Carol White, a Los Angeles housewife in the late 1980s who comes down with a debilitating illness. After the doctors she sees can give her no clear diagnosis, she comes to believe that she has frighteningly extreme environmental allergies. A profoundly unsettling work from the great American director Todd Haynes, 'Safe' functions on multiple levels: as a prescient commentary on self-help culture, as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis, as a drama about class and social estrangement, and as a horror film about what you cannot see. This revelatory drama was named the best film of the 1990s in a Village Voice poll of more than fifty critics.
I first took note of writer/director Todd Haynes with his unique Bob Dylan film 'I'm Not There.' Based on the creativity of that film alone, I signed up to review his 1995 film 'Safe' just so I could see more of his work. Some have labeled me a sinner for not already knowing 'Velvet Goldmine,' but it won't be long now, as I have more of a desire to see it now than ever.
I'd not heard of Haynes' film 'Safe' until it popped up in a Criterion release announcement, so I went in knowing just three things: it is an early Haynes film, it stars Julianne Moore, and it is their first of several collaborations. If only I could go into every good film knowing this little. The rest was truly a surprise.
What is the last film that you saw that gave you the heebie jeebies, one that made your mind physically feel something that wasn't there? I remember watching 'Arachnophobia' as a kid and swearing that I could feel spiders crawling up my legs – not only as I watched the movie, but as I lay in bed that night. 'Safe' causes that same reaction, only with a lot more paranoia and on a much grander global scale.
Julianne Moore delivers a great performance as wealthy Southern California housewife Carol White. Being the trophy wife of a selfish yuppie, Carol has everything that she could want in life: she attends an aerobics class each morning, enjoys fancy high-society meals each night and lives in a wonderfully posh home. The biggest of her concerns is the remodeling of her house and assuring that the new furniture match the color and style of the new design. From this perspective, you'd assume that there's nothing that money can't buy her – but that's not the case.
Little by little, Carol begins noticing odd changes in her health. From uncontrollable coughing fits to random bloody noses, there is something very wrong with her body. Unfortunately, no matter how many doctors visits or medical tests she undergoes, all signs point to her being perfectly healthy. Her doctor assumes that it's stress, but there's no arguing that her wealthy lifestyle is nearly stress-free. It's not until she starts looking into alternative medicine and radical ideas about illnesses that she finally believes she's found the root cause.
Carol is environmentally ill, meaning that she's made sick by all of the particles floating around in the environment – the city environment, to be specific. Pollution. Chemicals found in food, clothing, furniture, hair and hygiene products. Household everyday items make her sick. Making matters worse is that fact that because no doctor can diagnose her, they and her husband believe that it's all in her head.
With absolutely no support, Carol has to learn how to live and cope on her own. She starts off as a carefree and powerless stay-at-home mom, but gradually turns into a strong woman who evaluates her own well-being, stands up for herself and does whatever drastic thing she has to do to make things right for herself. She becomes the perfect example of showing when it's okay to be absolutely selfish. Despite her health gradually getting worse, it's great watching Carol rise. There isn't much to the story at hand, but her personal journey is completely satisfying.
Be prepared to have your outlook changed on things like vehicle emissions, chemical products, aerosol sprays, and so on. Paranoia will kick in as you watch.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion has placed this Sony Pictures Classics title on a Region A BD-50. The standard-to-Criterion clear keepcase carries the catalog number 739 on the spine. Instead of featuring the usual booklet, 'Safe' contains a poster-like fold-out with an essay from critic Dennis Lim, credits and about-the-transfer notes. Nothing plays before the main menu.
It should be no surprise that the transfer of 'Safe' has been given the utmost attention. Criterion has cleaned up the 14-year-old print and made it look almost as consistently sharp and flawless as a new film.
The video itself arrives with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode and a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. From the opening credits sequence until the very end, the picture is always wonderfully clear. This allows the sharpness to shine through. As if shot recently, textures and fine details are abundant. The stitching of clothing is highly visible (especially when Carol moves into a chemical-free hippie-like compound and begins wearing threaded clothes) and the rogue hairs springing out of Julianne Moore's head are always distinctly discernible.
Being shot in the '90s, the clothing styles allow for the bright colorization of the film to shine through. For example, vibrant neons shine as Carol participates in an aerobics exercise class. The palette takes a drastic shift the sicker Carol gets. As we move through the film, the neons are left behind and replaced with earthy tones. The overall desaturation of the palette is effective as the worldly excessive chemical products are removed from her life. Although the look of the film is quite bright, dark scenes feature black levels that certainly aren't lacking.
A light dose of film grain is consistent throughout. In the entire film, I was only able to spot one true flaw – a small scratch that blips over a couch during the fifteenth minute. That's it. No banding. No aliasing. No artifacts. No noise.
Where the upgrade in the video quality allowed for it to visually impress, being entirely sound-based, the audio doesn't shine unless you pay close attention to it. Criterion cleaned up and remastered it, but they did not upgrade the original audio mix. It carries the same monoaural audio mix that it did when released theatrically, only now with a cleaned-up uncompressed Linear PCM encode.
You can't visually judge remastered audio like you can with video, but listening to 'Safe' will show how great an aged audio mix can sound when cleaned up with tender care. While the video features a solitary scratch, the audio is flawless. It's consistently clear and completely void of warbles, clicks, pops, thumps or hissing. The music, vocals and effects are mixed in a way that gives perfect emphasis to the most important of the three at any given time. When you're meant to pay extra attention to one aspect, you'll certainly hear it loudly and clearly. For example, as Carol has her hair permed for the first time, you'll hear the bubbling and crackling of the chemicals over the other effects and dialog that are also running alongside it. As Carol and a friend have tea on the patio of a street-side cafe, more important that their dialog is the battle going on in their environment. If you're like me, you'll completely tune out their conversation and listen to the birds chirping while smog-emitting vehicles roar by one after the other. The environment plays a leading character in the film and you're certainly going to hear it speak just as much as the human characters.
In this day and stage in the world's evolution, we are dealt a great amount of films that preach to us about nature and what we're doing to it with car emissions, factory output and so forth. The nail has been hammered flush into the board, yet filmmakers continue to hammer away as if they can get it any deeper. Having said that, as I watched 'Safe' for the first time last week, none of that repetitious banging could be heard through the what I was experiencing. While it has a message to tell and doesn't shy away from pointing out that we, humankind, are not only poisoning our planet, but ourselves, it never feels preachy. Not once. We're grounded in the life of Carol, a real-life average character. We empathize with her in a way that makes us look at those same scenarios, circumstances and products in our own lives. It's effective to a level that most filmmakers – documentaries or features – with something important to say will never achieve. Criterion has done a wonderful job with this remaster. The video quality is near perfection and the unique audio mix is completely void of any age-revealing flaws. Several strong special features are included, making this yet another beautifully wrapped Criterion package.