Adam Cook’s review:
Todd Haynes’ underrated, Safe, is a glacially slow, dramatically inert and coolly detached study of a woman slowly being poisoned by modern life. Yet for all its traditional faults each ‘problem’ is transformed into a positive. The slow pacing and lack of drive in the story helps to create a hypnotic rhythm, and coupled with the Badalamenti-like imposing soundtrack, evokes an ominous air closer to a horror film. The detachment helps mirror Carol’s own dislocation from society and without Haynes’ leading the audience to a particularly conclusion, allows you to decide exactly what is wrong with her and whether she will ever be free from her inexplicable sickness.
Set in the San Fernando Valley during the late ‘80s some have read the film as an AIDS allegory yet for me this is a simplified interpretation and too narrow in focus. A more broader reading, a story of how modern life suffocates and pollutes, is perhaps a better way to look at the film. Carol’s life consists of ordering around her maids, going shopping and lunching with her girlfriends. Her life, although perfect in terms of material possessions, is empty and unfulfilled. She exists within a world that is not too far removed from Stepford where women have perfect hair and lives yet everything is eerily out of sync.
As she gradually becomes hypersensitive to every synthetic material or manmade gas she is dislocated from modern life and her loved ones. Eventually she finds her way to a New Age commune that borders on a cult, free of chemicals and the trappings of modernity and progress, yet this haven is as cynical and corrupt as the outside world even if she finds an inner-peace within it. Julianne Moore is brilliant in the film, she is a woman who, stripped of responsibility or purpose, is a walking shell, meek and fitting in with the perfect and privileged people that surround her.
The film is an acquired taste as many will find this slow and uneventful (and the film is undoubtedly both) but if you can be drawn in by the film’s rhythm it is a rewarding and often mesmerising experience.