The human body is an amazing piece of equipment. Not only because of the mobility and the inner workings, but because of how it is able to defend itself. We live in a time where there are chemicals in the air we breathe, chemicals in what we eat and other unseen threats to how our immune system functions. Imagine if all of those defenses began to break down, bit by bit. This is the idea behind Todd Haynes's terrific and unsettling 1995 picture starring Julianne Moore, in a performance that really gained her notice.
Moore plays Carol White, a wealthy housewife who generally keeps to herself. She and her husband have a "relationship", but they seem like two planets in different orbits. She attends functions and generally tries to be healthy. There's little exitement, much routine. Then, one day, Carol starts to become ill - the kind of ill that you don't really question, at first. Then, things start to become progressively worse. Car exhaust makes her choke violently, she gets a nosebleed while getting her hair done and she has a full-blown panic attack at a friend's party.
Although her psychologist believes that the problem is all in Carol's mind, she believes that there is an explanation - environmental illness, the loss of ability to combat the kind of pollutants and chemicals that plague us during our everyday lives. Even after Carol goes into shock after walking into her dry cleaner, her doctor can't find a single thing wrong with her - everything seems to be functioning without problem.
Moore's performance captures the horror of the situation perfectly, the fact that the whole world seems to be closing in on her and she can't explain what's making her as violently ill as she's become. Although Moore's appearance has changed since the film, her delicate features also help in the performance, especially when she begins to look sicker and her illness is even more convincing. Moore's character is very sympathetic; scenes of her appearing defeated and weaker are emotional and troubling - we almost wish we could reach in and help her.
The second half of the film has Carol visiting a camp in the middle of nowhere for people like her, providing the isolation from the toxins of the everyday world that she thinks she needs. Things don't seem to be getting better, though. Some have found "Safe" to have multiple explanations - some think that Carol's life was so empty and routine (not to mention the fact that she really has no connections) to begin with that her system simply struck back, while some believe that Carol's illness is simply in her mind. Yet, the illness in "Safe" is not something that's made-up for the movie - there are real-life instances of "environmental illness" that have gone on in reality.
Either way, "Safe" is a quiet, fragile picture that creeps up on you and even though it does move slightly slowly, it grips you. Moore's performance here remains one of her best and "Safe" remains a compelling and horrifying film.
VIDEO: "Safe" is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen by Columbia/Tristar. Although "Safe" does have low-budget origins, the film's look is that of a picture with a moderate production. Yet, the picture quality doesn't deliver as well as I would have liked for it to. Sharpness and detail are generally acceptable, as the picture looks crisp and well-defined throughout the brightly lit and outdoor sequences. Some of the dimly lit and dark sequences look a little on the murky and soft side, though.
Although "Safe" is six years old, there were a few more problems than I'd expected to see from the movie. Print flaws are noticable more frequently than I'd like to see - small to mild marks, the occasional speckle and a scratch or two were all too visible during the film. Some scenes appeared lightly grainy, as well. Unfortunately, edge enhancement and pixelation are also apparent during the film - both are sometimes noticable.
Colors are nicely rendered, looking natural and pleasant, with no instances of smearing or other problems. This is certainly a watchable and often respectable presentation, but overall, it was less than I'd expected or hoped for for the film.
SOUND: The film is presented in Dolby 2.0. "Safe" is a film that is, for the most part, extremely subtle in terms of audio. The majority of the film revolves around dialogue in quiet, sterile interiors with little ambient sound. The score occasionally enters in as does a very slight hum, which is intentional. Audio quality sounded fine - dialogue came across occasionally a little rough sounding, but usually natural and clear.
MENUS:: Very basic menus revolving around the cover art.
Commentary: This is a commentary from director Todd Haynes, actress Julianne Moore and producer Christine Vachon. For such a dark movie, the commentary is suprisingly light and occasionally entertaining. The director and producer discuss some of the problems that came up while shooting on the low budget. Moore chimes in occasionally about how she was able to craft her performance and does share a few jokes - during a dinner scene, she quitely says "I was so hungry here." (the actress went on a diet for the weaker look of the character). There's the occasional pause of silence throughout the track, but the majority of the film has the three keeping things light, entertaining and informative. Note: I was very pleased to hear during the commentary track that Haynes was happy to finally have the film in widescreen for the DVD release. For a few moments during the track, he discusses the annoyance of having to put so much thought into compositions, only to have them pan & scanned. It's good to hear a director praising widescreen and watching the film in its original aspect ratio.
Also: Trailers for "Safe" and "The End Of the Affair" as well as production notes and filmographies.
Final Thoughts: "Safe" is a subtle, soft, delicate movie that is also often completely eerie, disturbing and saddening. Julianne Moore's performance is fantastic and carries the film wonderfully. Tristar's DVD is not a stellar effort, providing a great commentary track, but somewhat lackluster audio/video quality. Still, "Safe" is a stunner and well worth viewing.