Saturday, April 12, 2008

Safe in the Hands of Todd Haynes

I'm in love with Todd Haynes. I know he's gay, but I'm okay with that. This beautiful man has captured my heart and stimulated my mind in ways few filmmakers ever have. Let me briefly summarize my Haynes chronology. My introduction to his work was Far From Heaven, which I absolutely adored. I think it's a glorious, loving homage to Douglas Sirk and All That Heaven Allows, as well as a socially conscious, poignant, intelligent reinterpretation of that film, melodrama, and cinema in general. Next came I'm Not There, which I dubbed the best film of 2007. For my glowing review, go here. His grasp of filmmaking, his ability to challenge preconceptions of what film should be, and his total dedication to his art, which are consistent elements in all of his films, blew my mind. Haynes thinks on levels that most people probably don't even possess. I'm Not There is a work of genius. Then, I really got to know and love him as a person with his wonderfully endearing appearances on the Independent Spirit Awards, both having fun (good-naturedly, at his own expense - the Rainn Wilson fake audition for I'm Not There and his "Rainn on Film" interview) and being vulnerable, articulate, and moving (his acceptance speech for the Robert Altman Award and his tribute to Heath Ledger). Just when I thought he couldn't get any better, I saw Safe. Hi, my name is Lisa, and I'm a Haynes-a-holic.

Written and directed by Haynes, Safe is an underrated gem that was released in 1995. The people who have seen it love it, but I think it's been tragically buried by time. It stars Haynes' muse, Julianne Moore, as Carol White, an upper-class suburban housewife with too much time on her hands. Like all of Todd Haynes' work, this is a very challenging film. I was totally engrossed while watching it, but it affected me so profoundly, both emotionally and especially intellectually, that I had to just sit and collect my thoughts for about five minutes before I could even begin to vocalize my reaction to my viewing companion. Safe is deeper than the darkest recesses of the ocean. Seriously. Safe is a marvel. To describe it almost seems futile. I could never capture or distill its brilliance in mere words, which is why I'm going to keep this review fairly short. I also don't want to give anything away.

Carol is married to Greg (Xander Berkeley, from 24), but he's always working. They have extremely mechanical sex, and they're so detached from each other. She starts feeling sick, for no apparent reason, and he pretty much dismisses her. Her vapid friends aren't much help either. How could they be? No one really knows each other. Safe is set in the 80s, by the way, so there's a delightful use of music and costumes. Even though it's a period piece (the 80s is a period!), Safe transcends time. It's just as relevant today, maybe even more so. Carol keeps getting sicker, and she eventually discovers a group (more like a cult) of people who are suffering from her symptoms. She goes to live with them at a sort of commune - to make sure she's safe. Basically, Carol and these other people are allergic to modern society. They're sick as a result of all the toxins, chemicals, and other invisible monsters plaguing our sterile world. What is our chemical-laden, sterilized, disconnected, modified, artificial society really doing to us? How many times have people gotten sick and doctors can't figure out why? It's pretty compelling, don't you think?

Anyway, to leave it at that is a gross oversimplification of the plot and of Haynes' message and intentions. There's so much more going on. I've barely scratched the hypo-allergenic surface. Safe is so deliciously provocative. It's also very unsettling. It's a film that you will never forget once you've seen it. The aesthetic and technical aspects of Safe are as deliberate and brilliant as anything I've ever seen. Everything is so carefully planned out. Most of the shots are extreme long shots in order to capture the isolation and detachment rampant in society, as well as the more personal isolation and detachment of Carol. Moore is often just a tiny dot on the screen, trapped in her palatial suburban prison. The compositions are divinely intricate. The colors pulsate. The incomparable sound design engulfs us, making us feel as oppressed as Carol. It's astonishing how horrific Haynes can make even the most mundane household noises sound.

Julianne Moore, an actress I've always adored, is DYNAMITE as Carol White. It's a performance for the ages. She's so restrained and subtle. It's like watching a poem. She totally gets lost in the character, and from the second we see her, we're lost in her, too. She's empathetic and completely heartbreaking. It's the best work I've ever seen her do, and that's saying a lot. Her relationship with Todd Haynes is just pure magic. Safe is so outstanding, such a pillar of cinematic achievement, that it could be the basis of a whole semester-long film class in which you break it down shot by shot. It's that good. Each shot is a masterpiece, and when you combine all of those individual masterpieces, it's practically orgasmic. The final shot will make your heart pound and leave you breathless.

Todd Haynes is a genius. He's one of the most sensitive, intelligent, and talented filmmakers working today. He never plays it safe (see what I did?), and in my opinion, it always pays off. Safe is loaded with meaning, metaphors, allegories, satire, scathing criticism, and social commentary. It's one of the most fulfilling and rewarding cinematic experiences I've ever had, and I think it'll only get better each time I watch it.

Safe has totally heightened my awareness of myself and my surroundings. I can't stop thinking about this film. It's haunting me. I'm fascinated, and justifiably disturbed, by the questions raised by Haynes with this film. What does being "safe" mean to me? Is the meaning different for every person? Are any of us really safe? And then there's this thing, this elaborate mechanism on planet Earth known as civilized society, something which has evolved and supposedly been perfected over thousands of years. Is Safe saying that society is poison? I'd say so. Well...IS society poisonous? Are we literally killing ourselves with the artificial, impersonal world that we created?

I buy it.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

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