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Safe (Blu-ray Review)

15 Dec, 2014 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for a sex scene and brief language.
Stars Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley.

Writer-director Todd Haynes and producer Christine Vachon have it exactly right on the supplements here when they emphasize that many or even most critics didn’t know what to make of Haynes’ second feature — filmed just as lead Julianne Moore was coming into her own but released after she had (that is, after Short Cuts, Vanya on 42nd Street and an effective small role in The Fugitive). Criterion’s lead-time production schedule has to be such that they couldn’t have known (or for sure) what Oscar buzz Moore’s current role in Still Alice is generating as we speak, but you have to say that the Safe release timing is in the bulls-eye territory.

Cast as a vapid but not unsympathetic upscale San Fernando homemaker whose unexplained allergies may be in her mind yet at least to some degree have to be real, Moore’s character (Carol) develops a nosebleed at the beauty parlor and a horrifying coughing fit in a parking garage, the latter a scene not easily forgotten. Taking charge of her own situation is beyond her abilities, and the one time we see her do so doesn’t really lead to any permanent parting of the seas. Carol’s husband (Xander Berkeley) is clueless (but does accompany her to doctors), while her time-on-their-hands acquaintances (the kind she sees at the gym or at baby showers) do what little they can amid their own mystification. Even her doctor is in over his head and can only prescribe a shrink; it’s a telling fact that this era’s real-life rise in chemically-engendered afflictions were chalked up to “female hysteria” until men (sometimes in the workplace) started getting them. Which sounds a little like Bill Cosby’s accusers not being taken seriously until a male comedian stirred the flames years after the fact.

What threw a lot of people two decades ago is the movie’s disinclination to be judgmental, even when Carol ends up in a New Age-y desert facility whose cult-like tendencies are ripe for satire, and indeed are satirized but in a very low-key way. The tone here is almost exactly the opposite of what we got in disease-of-the-week TV movies from the same era, though this is actually a 1995 release set in the late ’80s with the symbolic aura of AIDS hanging over more story threads than not, though AIDS is never specifically mentioned. I couldn’t figure out what to make of the movie at the time — and then got no space at USA Today (what else is new?) to ruminate in print; as a result, there was a total disparity between my actual review (fairly favorable, if memory serves) and the mediocre star rating I gave it. Part of my problem, I think, was an inability to get very stirred, on a character level, by Carol — who actually is kind of interesting if you approach her on a clinical level. The storytelling is also maddeningly passive at times, though in a way that gets under one’s skin. According to the filmmakers, and quite credibly, the reviewers who panned Safe came back at year’s end to laud it on their annual best lists.

Moore has a tough role, though to hear her speak in a kinetic 36-minute Haynes-Moore discussion here, she seems to have to had an automatic sense of what her character was about and even where to place herself in — or take advantage of — Haynes’ striking framing (cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy makes Safe look like more than a million, though a million or less was the movie’s budget). Her on-camera rapport here with the filmmaker certainly doesn’t seem faked or embellished — and, of course, the two had a subsequent triumph with 2002’s Far From Heaven. The latter, in particular, did both of their careers a lot of good, even if Haynes will probably never be the kind of filmmaker synonymous with “boffo” (though his marathon HBO take on Mildred Pierce kind of was, in its own way). Included on this release as well is an early and once thought-to-be-lost 1978 Haynes short called The Suicide, about a bullied male teen. It isn’t the stuff of boffo, either, but it does show that he was talented and certainly precocious even when he was a teen himself.

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