Exactly twenty years ago today, American audiences saw for the first time a nighttime drive down the San Fernando Valley through the windshield of a Mercedes. Ed Tomney’s electronic score rose to an ominous, piercing hum as the car pulled into an extravagantly furnished mansion and introduced us to our meek, submissive protagonist with one of cinema’s most portentous sneezes.
Her name is Carol White. She’s, in her own words, “a housewi…a homemaker.” With the exception of her obsessive attention to detail over the opulent design of her house, uncertainty is one of the few defining traits of this very unremarkable, even boring person. Julianne Moore, in her breakout performance, made herself rail-thin and raised her voice a squeaky-high pitch to highlight her near-total insubstantiality. Her every word is delivered with frightened hesitancy. She exhibits no passion in anything physical – exercising, gardening, screwing. Her life is without excitement but also without much hardship, and Carol seems okay with that. And then she starts to get sick.
The symptoms are minor at first. Fatigue, the occasional migraine…the kind of things that could happen to anyone dealing with the stresses of picking out the right color of furniture to complement their living room’s décor. But then they start to get worse. She can barely breathe at even the sight of fumes. A nosebleed at a hair salon. Her migraines become more frequent and painful. Soon she can’t even touch her husband without gagging. But her doctor can’t find anything physically wrong with her. Because if what she’s going through can’t be easily diagnosed by a man, her silly ladybrain must be making it all up! With no answers from conventional medicine she finds sanctuary in Wrenwood, a retreat for people with environmental illness (or multiple chemical sensitivity, which it should be noted is a real medical condition that even today isn’t very well understood), led by Peter Dunning, an enigmatic, AIDS-afflicted guru of holistic treatments.
Now that appears at first glance to be the setup of a Lifetime “Disease of the Week” special, but the genius of [SAFE] is how Haynes and his team deftly manage to bend such a conventional premise to touch on a myriad of thematic avenues, all explored with mutability rarely matched in any English-language film. Nearly every part of late-20th Century life in America is cracked open here, from the obvious AIDS and New Age spirituality commentary to its less overt but just as piercing insights on race (specifically the unfortunately still prevalent and easily-exploited paranoia of affluent white people; in one of the most darkly comic scenes of the movie, Carol’s stepson Rory reads her a homework assignment describing with increasingly over-the-top gruesome detail the dangers of immigrants and ethnic minorities in California) and feminism. It is in many ways the perfect cinematic companion piece to Betty Friedan’s explosive book The Feminine Mystique, which documented and explored the cause of widespread unhappiness of American women in the 1950’s. While Carol is by all outward appearances a more-than-content Stepford Wife, her body violently rejects things like makeup, cleaning products, and the material comforts of her life as a signal that things are just not right, but without any other means to articulate that anxiety.
Peter Dunning, conveyed by prolific character actor Peter Friedman with a soft-spoken confidence reminiscent of Peter Popoff and Dr. Oz, provides no further clarity or alleviation of her condition. It’s easy to see how someone as outwardly warm and rhetorically eloquent could seduce an already weak Carol at her most vulnerable, especially as he is the first man to actually take her seriously. But with insidious tact – so underhanded it’s hard to even notice at first – he begins to psychology manipulate her into further isolating herself from the outside world and keep her under the thumb of his cult-like sanctuary. And since Carol has no real identity unrelated to the trappings of her previous life, her sense of self also begins to break down. The question of what exactly is afflicting Carol becomes the central mystery surrounding the film, and as it reaches its chilling conclusion all possible answers are equally unnerving.
Moore’s performance is an extraordinary act of breaking down a character into nothing but a frayed shell, and infuses a warmth and humanity to Carol that keeps us caring for her and staying invested in her struggle even when Carol herself is at her most frustratingly obtuse. Also contributing greatly to the film’s unqualified success is cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy, shooting the sterile, borderline asphyxiating interior spaces in a series of remarkably executed deep focus and wide-angle shots. Every space is filled with sharp angles and decors that are immaculately structured yet eerily depersonalized. He holds his shots in the kind of long, static takes of complex imagery that would make Kubrick proud, and provides the subtlest visual cues guiding our attention to the intricate details of David Bomba’s mise-en-scène (it still amazes how good this movie looks on such a tiny budget) and evoking layers of moods and associations with those locations.
Twenty years later, [SAFE] has lost none of its power or insights into materialism, religion, identity, women, and modern anxieties in America. It launched the careers of Julianne Moore and Todd Haynes, and became a prime example of the expansion of New Queer Cinema from being defined by LGBT subjects to also staking out radical narrative methods and aesthetic styles. But more than anything else, [SAFE] endures today because it is a great movie, intellectually dense, ambiguous, yet intensely watchable in equal measure.