Pay attention to Fulvia (Martha Velez) in Todd Haynes’s Safe as she casts a confused, sideways glance at Carol (Julianne Moore), who reacts to seeing a wrongly delivered couch as if her own child’s battered body were strewn across the floor. Haynes isolates Fulvia in a brief shot as Carol “telephonos” the San Fernando furniture joint, lending silent but privileged access to Fulvia’s feelings of alienation from Carol’s sense of entitlement. Yet Haynes’s subtle reversal here is that Carol is the alien, not Fulvia, who actually lords over the domestic duties of the home, tending to Carol’s stepson, Rory (Chauncey Leopardi), and satiating Carol’s “milkaholic” desires on demand. Note the way Carol calls for Fulvia once she enters the home, as if a child wailing for her mother in the middle of the night.
Safe is prescient because of its double vision, both toward the AIDS crisis of the past decade and the impending technological freakouts of the next. Perhaps that’s why, just after the absent fruition of Y2K’s doom-and-gloom rhetoric, The Village Voice named Safe the best film of the 1990s; it’s perhaps the ’90s American film that’s most attuned to the paralyzing ramifications of ubiquitous technologies and the fragmented networking of information. Here’s a film that, like Carol, is no longer certain of any kind of physical durability, either of bodies or information.
We still need to talk about Carol, whose illness the film leaves unresolved and, in turn, asks to be considered by viewers through an address of her undergirding social conditions. Although the story is set in 1987, Haynes utilizes the time period more for its oddities and cultural anachronisms, most notably an emergent fascination with New Age dieting, exercise routines, and pseudo-religious gurus claiming to possess phenomenological visions of “essence” where “normal” citizens merely feel a conspicuous detachment. But the film’s primary concern is the era’s insistence upon silence, as Carol’s early visit with Linda (Susan Norman), whose brother has just died, leads to a tip-toeing conversation where the word “AIDS” is intimated, but never explicitly uttered. (The silence is in keeping with Ronald Reagan’s official policy during the 1980s that he would not speak the word publicly.) Silence defines domestic situations, not just through Fulvia’s tight-lipped distance from Carol’s behavior, but also in Carol and Linda’s refusal to verbally make sense of reality through unrepressed discussion.
Such is also the case with Carol’s husband, Greg (Xander Berkeley), who fulfills his patriarchal duties whether by suiting up for work, briefcase in hand to provide the household income, or routinely going missionary for the umpteenth time in their painfully passionless marriage (Carol’s post-coital peck on the cheek is one of the saddest kisses in the history of cinema). Greg can only speak through passive-aggressive shit-talking, insisting to Carol that “nobody has a headache every night of the fucking week!” But Carol does, and no matter anyone’s insistence to the contrary, she is ill, medically verifiable or not. Haynes is clever about the silences formally, often placing Carol at the edge of the frame or refusing to treat her with any privilege over the numerous luxury items littering her home. As such, his eye is seemingly objective even though he’s rigorously calculating her eventual migration to Wrenwood for “treatment” and, most unforgettably, setting up Carol’s final declaration of “love” while staring at herself in the mirror.
Before that, however, Haynes fulfills one of the primary qualifications B. Ruby Rich has explained for New Queer Cinema by unmapping easy expectations of positive queer representation. After all, when Peter (Peter Friedman), Wrenwood’s co-founder and head counselor, is introduced as having AIDS, the presumption, as Rich explains it, is that since Haynes is a gay filmmaker, any character having AIDS will be portrayed in a positive light. That’s nearly the opposite case here, where Peter’s having AIDS is part of Haynes’s deconstruction of easy leftist outs for expressing empathy. Peter is a proto-Svengali of the impending Internet age, disseminating information from behind an unseen avatar of hollow identity explanations (“What you see is a reflection of what is within”), in an effort to attain “followers,” if you will.
But what’s consistently challenging about Safe is its refusal to ever quite lay down its hand, such that Haynes continues to weave in and out of bluffs and conviction in equal measure, possessing a poker face of the highest order. Maybe Peter does believe what he says and is genuinely interested in healing. But in Haynes’s cinema, good intentions don’t get you very far, since ultimately, all of his characters, regardless of masks or, in a mute Wrenwood client named Lester (Rio Hackford), a full-body getup, are beholden to and trapped within bodies that are rapidly breaking down. The final irony, of course, is that we’re all on the downward slope, so that self-love and seclusion from societal realities ultimately conceals nothing but humanity’s one shared attribute: mortality.
From the too-creepy-for-words image of Lester walking across an isolated landscape as its menu image, to the stunningly mixed presentation of Ed Tomney’s score, the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Safe matches the best audio-visual HD efforts from the company yet. As the long-awaited rectification of Sony’s out-of-print and fairly awful 2001 DVD, this Blu-ray presents Todd Haynes’s vision of domestic deterioration as a crystalline series of tightly staged and expertly color-timed sequences, which previous transfers were never able to vividly convey. Several shots throughout vibrate with a saturation and radiance that anticipate both Velvet Goldmine and Far from Heaven. Most helped by the HD are Haynes’s deep-focus compositions, especially outdoors scenes around Wrenwood, with backgrounds rife with detail and information.
If not quite overflowing, there are a healthy dose of extras here to ameliorate the lack of Haynes’s work in any comprehensive home-video format. A commentary track with Haynes, Julianne Moore, and producer Christine Vachon, recorded in 2001 and carried over from the DVD release, is notable mostly for Haynes’s insights about the film’s meaning, specifically his description of Carol in the film’s final shot as "all eyes and no face." He also provides some fun trivia, like that he got the idea for Lester after witnessing a similarly dressed streetwalker while eating breakfast at a Polish restaurant in Encino. There are two interviews, both recorded in 2014, one a half-hour conversation between Haynes and Moore, the other a 15-minute solo with Vachon. Haynes and Moore converse fluidly together, prompting various fascinating tangents, especially Moore’s in-depth explanation of her intense interest in portraying Carol. Vachon covers the film’s reception explicitly, explaining the film’s initial controversy within the gay community and her subsequent work with Haynes through I’m Not There. Also included is Haynes’s 1978 short The Suicide, which is fully in keeping with his early, more experimental approach to queer narratives. Finally, there’s the film’s original theatrical trailer and an essay by Dennis Lim.
Although Wrenwood is about the last place imaginable one would want to spend the holidays, the Criterion Collection’s immaculate 4K transfer of Todd Haynes’s Safe demands that you do exactly that.