The Quiet Terror of Todd Haynes’s ‘Safe’

My first viewing of Todd Haynes’ quiet psychological horror film Safe came unfortunately late in life.  I only wish I could have seen it sooner, devoured it earlier, and let it live inside me for longer. But upon my first watching last winter, I had to pause the film after about fifteen minutes to text a friend. “Hey, so is the sound in Safe as unsettling and disorienting as it seems or did I just find a really janky version online?” “Oh no, that’s just the movie. Continue on,” he replied. And as the film continued to unspool and show its brilliance, I realized the power of deteriorating world Haynes had created.

“I agree with Fassbinder who said, ‘revolution doesn’t belong on the cinema screen, but outside, in the world,’” Haynes said in the linear notes for Safe’s soundtrack. And as one of his best features, rather than handing his audience a solution or spelling out exactly what he was trying to say, he opted to show us and make us feel his motives and desires—’to give them the revolution is to deprive them of the necessity of creating their own. Viewers of film have extraordinary powers: they can make life out of reflections on the wall,” he said. And as someone who favors the work of directors such as Chantal Ackerman, who chooses to expose the moments most filmmakers would leave behind or cut out in order to allow the viewer to impress themselves into the storytelling and create a genuine curiosity, Safe was born out of a “strict opposition to current trends in movies,” and distaste for Hollywood’s “histrionics and technological gimmickry” which leave you numb.”

Starring the incomparable Julianne Moore, in a time when she was just beginning to play a string of career-changing roles, Safe tells a hysterical story lurking behind the pleasant facades and perfectly manicured lawns of suburbia. Set in the San Fernando Valley in 1987, the film follows Moore as Carol White, a normal housewife who develops a “Twentieth Century disease”—MCS, a chemical sensitive triggered by the manufactured environment, triggered by chemicals found in household and industrial products. As she begins to get sick, we watch her fragile body breakdown and become inundated with worsening symptoms and bodily reactions—nosebleeds, convulsions, the inability to breathe, fatigue, etc. No one knows quite how to help her and as she begins to deteriorate further with doctors at a loss, she begins to attend psychotherapy and eventually ends up a New Age retreat in the desert. Completely isolated, quarantined, it’s there she is sent to recover. But as Haynes mentions: “Safe is a movie: It tells lies. But unlike most movies, Safe lies on purpose.”

My initial reaction to the sounds of the Safe’s world are precisely what the director intended—what we hear and what we see, in opposition to one another. “The film’s cool presentation dehumanizes the affluence of the suburban Los Angeles; just as the mysteries of the environmental illness undermine the surety of New Age thought.” And its in the films score that this dichotomy exist so strongly and rise and cover the surface of  the film with ominous force. In his linear notes for the film’s soundtrack, Haynes notes:

 What matters is not composition but instrumentation: the way the sounds are treated, layered, lacquered. The reverberation of analogue synthesis as opposed to the cleanness of digital recording. Random experimentation. Mistakes. I watched as Ed, stealing sounds from the pits of tenement piping or the cacophonous mass of his industrial orchestra, collected raw material for his own brand of aural alchemy.

 In strict opposition to current trends in movies, I wanted to tell a story as quietly as possible. The result, in every aspect, is a minimalist film: from Julianne Moore’s courageous simplicity and Alex Nepomniaschy’s immaculate camera, to the bristling composure of James Lyons’ cutting and the quiet force of Ed’s music. This restraint provides spaces for the person watching, resulting in a film that cannot be read literally. Instead, the steps we take toward understanding Carol’s illness are weighted with a sense of the inexplicable – of a mystery unfolding. Ed’s music plays an essential role in that mystery.

But the psychological and emotional devastation of the film are so subtly potent and creeping, you may not even notice its effect until the end of the picture, but oh, do they linger on after. It’s a film about a woman who “develops an allergy to the 20th century”—and where does one find a cure for that in this world? The restraint and dread comes in the films quiet moments and since its release in 1995, there really had been nothing like it.

And to my great delight, this weekend the Museum of the Moving Image will be screening Safe on Sunday as part of their Julianne Moore series. You can purchase your tickets HERE, but in the meantime, check out the trailer for the feature, as well as a hour-long conversation between  J. Hoberman and Todd Haynes.

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