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:: Safe

Safe is the latest release by director Todd Haynes, although the term ‘latest release’ may be a tad misleading. The film was released in the US almost ten years ago in 1995 and confusion over who owned the distribution rights for Australia caused the delay of the release of the film here ever since. Fortunately those matters have now been resolved as Safe is an incredible insight into a director we have seen go from strength to strength since the making of that film.

Safe is the story of a very ordinary woman, Carol White (Julianne Moore). Ordinary in every sense of the word except that her husband (Xander Berkeley) is very well off and she lives the rather charmed existence of a housewife who fills her day with nothing much of anything. Gradually though, as each day passes, Carol’s very normal life becomes increasingly foreign to her, when she finds herself getting more and more unwell for no apparent reason. As relentless medical examinations reveal nothing physically wrong with her and doctors begin to suspect that her mysterious illness is psychosomatic, she finds herself increasingly alone.

The very air she breathes seems to be filled with things that could spark an attack, whether it be car fumes, aerosol sprays, detergent, perfume, soap, or even milk. After the attacks start getting worse, she begins to realise that is in fact right. She is becoming allergic to her surroundings. She is diagnosed with a disease called ‘environmental illness’, which is an allergy to common, everyday, household products. Sufferers of the disease possess immune systems that just one day end up collapsing under the strain of the enormous number of substances that we subject our bodies to each and every day in modern society.

The film follows Carol’s journey into her illness, the effect it has on her relationships with those around her and her life as she knows it and as she thought it would be in the future. Carol is fascinating as a lead character in that she is entirely lacking in any sort of substance, in a way that Moore’s character in Far From Heaven, despite their similarities was not. Carol’s existence is entirely lacking in any sort of substance. She appears to have no interests or aspirations aside from being a good wife with a nice home. Even motherhood doesn’t seem like a role she cherishes, as she shows no real interest in or affection toward her stepson.

But it is this unassuming way that Carol quietly goes about her day to day life that makes you empathise with her when things start going wrong. Although she is not passionate about anything, nor is anyone really passionate about her, including her husband. By the end she appears so vulnerable and alone that it seems as if no one else is going through this horrible journey with her, but you. The last part of the film where Carol has moved to a health retreat in New Mexico and is subjected to the sleazy cult like healer Peter, is particularly chilling.

It is intriguing to see a film for the first time on the big screen from a director whose more recent films you have seen first. Whilst watching Safe, it was inevitable that thoughts of Haynes’ career trajectory came to mind, searching for indicators of his development as a filmmaker, which lead him to make ‘Velvet Goldmine’ and then ‘Far From Heaven’. Safe revealed a level of fascination by Haynes in the gaudiness of wealth that was again noticeable in Velvet Goldmine. There was also the personal story with the political undertones, which is a narrative structure Haynes later employed in Far From Heaven. Despite these comparisons, Safe is a strong stand alone feature, well worth a look regardless of what you think of his later work.

Screening at the Lumiere Cinemas.