Saturday, January 05, 2008

Todd Haynes retrospective - SAFE

No! We wanted teal! We ordered teal!Todd Haynes' 1995 movie SAFE is one of the creepiest, most subversive films I have seen. It opens in perfectly manicured American suburbia - the home of the shag-pile carpet and the hostess trolley. Everything is perfect - almost too perfect. Sterile surfaces are photographed in perfectly symmetrical tableaux - coloured in bland pastel. Our protagonist is a housewife called Carol White. Julianne Moore plays her as a fragile woman, uneasy in her own skin. Her life is defined by her house and its furnishings and she exists to service the needs of her family.

Moments of black humour, satirising materialism, are flecked throughout this otherwise sinister and intense film. Just watch Carol's reaction when she realises her decorators have delivered the wrong coloured sofa! But for the most part this is a terrifying film. Carol develops non-specific illnesses. Is she really physically ill or are her allergic reactions a manifestation of a nervous disorder? Will her doctors and her family help her? Will she put herself forward for help? In the end, Carol scorns conventional therapy for a new-age centre for people sickened by the modern environment. In this final section, the movie shifts from a critique of bourgeois materialism and neuroses to a satire of new-age cults that cater to the whims of those willing to pay.

Haynes' film is notable for three reasons. First, as social critique it was remarkably prescient on the issues of environmental degradation and the rising tide of nameless fear whipped up by politicians and the media. In addition, one might read the movie as a parable about the irrational reaction to the rise of AIDS in the 1980s. The second reason why the film is notable is that it gave us a glimpse of Haynes' technical accomplishment - a facility that was to be expressed most fully in his homage to Douglas Sirk, FAR FROM HEAVEN. Finally, the film was a break-out role for Julianne Moore and foreshadows many of the roles she was later to become famous for. In her icy detachment and her self-imprisonment, Carol White is the precursor for Linda Patridge in MAGNOLIA and more particularly, of Laura Whitaker in FAR FROM HEAVEN and Laura Brown in THE HOURS. For all these reasons, and the sheer horror of this chilling thriller, SAFE remains a must-see movie.

SAFE opened in 1995 and is available on DVD.

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