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Todd Haynes
Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Dean Norris, Julie Burgess
Writing Credits:
Todd Haynes

In the 21st century nobody will be...Safe.

An affluent and unexceptional homemaker in the suburbs develops multiple chemical sensitivity.

Rated R

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
English LPCM Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 119 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 12/9/2014

• Audio Commentary by Director Todd Haynes, Actor Julianne Moore and Producer Christine Vachon
The Suicide Short Film
• “Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore” Interview
• Interview with Producer Christine Vachon
• Theatrical Trailer
• Booklet


Panasonic TC-P60VT60 60-Inch 1080p 600Hz 3D Smart Plasma HDTV; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


Safe: Criterion Collection (1995) [Blu-Ray]

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 14, 2014)

Back in 1993, I attended grad school and I rented a room in a house near school and my part-time job. At one point during my 18-month stay there, a woman named Jennifer became an occupant. Jennifer was thin and frail, and she displayed a permanent “deer in the headlights” expression. Jennifer wore a surgeon’s mask most of the time due to “environmental allergies” she claimed to have.

These were news to my housemates and me but Jennifer stated that she experienced severe reactions to various chemicals that appeared in day-to-day life. However, it wasn’t just the unfamiliar nature of the allergies that made us doubtful. Frankly, Jennifer was such an unpleasant and self-absorbed person that it was difficult to sympathize with her; she presented such an out-of-kilter personality that we felt most - if not all - of her woes were mental, not physical.

Since that time, I’ve learned more information that supports the validity of these allergies, but there remains a certain level of uncertainty about the problems. 1995’s Safe came out not long after my experiences with Jennifer, and it takes a look at others who suffer from such maladies.

Set in California circa 1987, Safe focuses on meek housewife Carol White (Julianne Moore), an upper-middle-class woman who lives with her husband Greg (Xander Berkeley) and stepson Rory (Chauncey Leopardi). Immediately we see that she’s barely connected to her existence; from the emotionless sex she has with Greg to the superficial and banal chats with her “friends”, Carol’s life comes across as little more than bland window-dressing.

However, she soon starts to develop an odd illness. Carol feels tired and headachy most of the time, and she gets nosebleeds at unusual times. Doctors provide no help, and psychiatrists also cannot discern a viable diagnosis; one claim of “stress” seems laughable given Carol’s lifeless existence. Eventually she learns of environmental illnesses, and she buys into this concept as the cause of her woes.

From there Carol becomes a more active personality, as her disease starts to define her. Various interventions fail to stem its tide, however, as Carol gets more and more ill. Eventually she decides to go to a special “camp” for environmentally sick people. Called Wrenwood, this New Age center purports to teach sufferers how to deal with their problems.

While some aspects of Carol’s stay seem positive - she actually focuses on emotions and thoughts for the first time in who knows how long - Carol’s illness doesn’t dissipate. If anything, it gets worse, as the Carol we see by the end of the film clearly looks to be in bad shape.

As he noted in the 2001 DVD’s production notes, writer/director Todd Haynes followed the standard TV movie formula for Safe, but the result seems quite different from the usual soppy melodrama. For one, Haynes tells the tale with a Kubrickian lack of sentiment. Stanley’s influence appears pervasive across Safe, from production design to photographic techniques.

However, it’s through the dispassionate distance Haynes keeps from the characters that Safe most resembles a Kubrick piece; the film never goes far to cross the boundaries that separate us from the participants, and we remain somewhat disconnected to them.

Actually, I should replace “them” with “her”, for Carol is really the film’s only substantial character. Almost all of the scenes feature Moore, and she remains the sole focal point; all of the personalities appear as little more than walk-on bits and they all seem very secondary.

Carol doesn’t receive a lot of exposition in the traditional sense. We learn little about her past, and what we do glean arrives through casual conversation. For example, we discover that Rory comes from Greg’s prior relationship. However, we don’t find out much about her life other than the superficial day-to-day aspects such as her struggle to get the correct couch delivered.

The absence of much nuance related to Carol’s existence isn’t a failing in the storytelling. It has to occur simply because Carol almost totally lacks any depth. She’s a bland personality who borders on a blank slate. Her life seems defined by her relationship to other people and things, and she appears to have few convictions or ideas.

This aspect of her character is what adds life to Safe because the way it combines with the newness of the environmental illness substantially muddies the waters. Carol isn’t some Terms Of Endearment-style feisty heroine who battles against a known disease. Instead, she’s a dull person who seems to almost enjoy her sickness. For the first time perhaps ever, Carol has a goal and a purpose, and she has something unusual to define her.

As such, Safe takes a wary viewpoint toward the illness itself that doesn’t seem different from the thoughts of my old housemates and myself. I never truly scoffed at the notion of the disease because I really didn’t know anything about it.

However, Jennifer came across as such a neurotic that it was awfully difficult to buy into most of it. One wanted to feel compassion for her, but she presented such a negative and passive-aggressive attitude that she made it exceedingly tough to care.

Safe captures these kinds of personalities neatly. It also refuses to clarify the veracity of the claims. At Wrenwood, no one ever seems to get any better, and Carol’s condition clearly deteriorates as she stays there.

This appears to support the notion that many of her concerns are mental. She finally finds a personality as a sick person, and she unconsciously delights in the attention this accords her. After so many years of invisibility, Carol’s disease makes her stand out as someone different.

However, I definitely wouldn’t call this a happy development. All Carol does is exchange one definition for another.

That said, the new one seems like progress since it puts her in a more active position; she’s actually doing something for once in her life. Unfortunately, the ultimate effect is negative since it provokes Carol to retreat further into her sickness.

I’d barely heard of Moore prior to Safe. I didn’t see the movie theatrically - actually, the 2001 DVD offered my first screening of it - but she received much praise for her performance, all of which she deserved. Carol really isn’t a showy role, but that’s why Moore’s work appears so special.

Moore creates such a believably timid personality without any excessive tendencies. Some actors can create “flamboyantly quiet” people, but Moore’s Carol remains realistic. She fully inhabits the character and helps make the film work.

Safe falls short of greatness, but it’s definitely an interesting and unusual film. It creates an odd sort of horror piece in which the villain is virtually inescapable, but it’s more interior and psychological in nature. The movie takes an admirably distant approach to its subject and leaves many conclusions up to the viewer, all of which makes it more effective.

The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B+/ Audio C+/ Bonus B-

Safe appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. A low-budget project, the image presented the film as intended.

Sharpness largely appeared satisfying. A little softness cropped up during some shots, but for the most part, the movie looked concise and accurate. No moiré effects or jagged edges materialized, and I saw no edge haloes. With natural grain, I found no issues with digital noise reduction, and the transfer lacked print flaws.

Colors looked acceptably clear and accurate, as the film featured a subdued look that fit the piece. The hues offered solid tones for what they were, and the desaturated appearance of Safe made sense.

Black levels were deep and dark, and shadow detail usually appeared appropriately opaque but not excessively thick. some interiors seemed a bit murky, but as a whole, the movie showed good clarity in the low-light sequences, and the dimness of occasional shots appeared to be intentional. This wasn’t a visual showcase, but the transfer delivered the movie well.

Unusual for a movie from 1995, Safe came with an LPCM monaural soundtrack. The quality of the audio seemed acceptable but bland. Dialogue appeared to be intelligible and reasonably natural, and I detected no problems related to edginess.

Both effects and music sounded clear and lacked distortion, but they also featured little range. Those elements failed to transmit much depth or dynamics, and ultimately they resulted in a lackluster piece. The mix stayed clean and listenable but nothing better than that.

How did the Blu-ray compare to the original DVD from 2001? Audio was a bit of a wash; the uncompressed Blu-ray mix offered a bit better range, but the limitations of the source meant only minor improvements.

On the other hand, visuals demonstrated more obvious growth. The Blu-ray seemed smoother, cleaner and tighter. This was a good step up in quality.

From the original DVD, we get an audio commentary with writer/director Todd Haynes, actress Julianne Moore, and producer Christine Vachon. All were recorded together for this running, screen-specific look at story/characters, cast and performances, sets and locations, music, budget-related challenges and other filmmaking areas.

Though the piece has a few good moments, as a whole it seems pretty bland. We hear a lot about how great everyone was, and the participants all laugh a lot as they watch the movie, though the reasons for this can be confusing; basically they seem to mock some of the characters’ flaws, as far as I can tell.

At times, some useful tidbits emerge, especially from Moore, who reveals some of the ways she developed her role. After I listened to this track, I respected her work even more. However, this commentary usually remains fairly flat and lackluster, and it doesn’t bring a great deal of information to the table.

The remaining extras are new to the Criterion release. From 1978, The Suicide provides a short film written and directed by Haynes. It runs 20 minutes, 30 seconds and shows the story of an adolescent who gets bullied and harms himself.

It’s somewhat clumsy and oddly constructed, but it’s surprisingly timely given the attention the subject gets these days. At the very least, it offers an interesting curiosity, as it allows us to check out Haynes’ early work.

Next comes a new Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore. It goes for 36 minutes, nine seconds and offers their comments about how they got to know each other in 1993 and Moore’s casting/performance, story/character areas and themes, sets and locations, cinematography, and the film’s reception. Much of the material already appears in the commentary, but the interview provides those details in a tighter package, so it works better than that chat.

Also shot in 2014, we hear more from Producer Christine Vachon. This reel takes up 15 minutes, 54 seconds and delivers Vachon’s notes about her creative partnership with Haynes, bringing together Safe and various production elements, and reactions to the movie. Also superior to the commentary, Vachon contributes a good collection of memories in this tight, informative piece.

In addition to the film’s trailer, we get a booklet. This offers an essay from critic Dennis Lim. It finishes the set in a satisfying manner.

Safe provides a rich and unsettling piece accentuated by fine acting from Julianne Moore. The Blu-ray provides positive picture, representative audio and an erratic but often interesting set of supplements. Safe brings us a rich, intriguing tale.

To rate this film, visit the DVD review of SAFE

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