Safe (1995) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

This is a rare American movie made in the style and atmosphere of the Northern Europeans. It is paced slowly, with few cuts. People contemplate on camera. There are long sequences filmed with a single camera far from the action, in which people speak to each other in hollow voices. The background music is either missing or outright creepy. It is unrelentingly depressing from beginning to end. This is all intentional, a style employed by the director to create a certain chilling, hopeless atmosphere. Imagine the movie Ingmar Bergman would make if he were a young American. 

It is essentially a two-act play. 

In the first half, an upper middle class homemaker starts to become a victim of a mysterious unexplained breakdown of her immune system, which cannot be medically pinpointed, but which is eventually "diagnosed" as environmental sickness - she becomes convinced that she's allergic to the 20th century. The film portrays the current health of mankind as precarious, and our lives as shallow and unrewarding. 


None. The "R" rating is a mystery to me. It should be PG-13. On the other hand, no kids will be sneaking this mature, cerebral, unsensational movie out of the video store, so the rating doesn't matter.
In the second half, the same housewife runs away to a desert retreat where she and others with similar maladies try to treat their problems by fleeing from the world, creating a "safe environment", and raising their consciousness with platitudes. Although it is not apparent to the patients, the homemaker's family (and we the viewers) can see that this retreat is simply a scam which takes advantage of desperate, simple people who have had no hope held out to them from any other quarter. In essence, the patients pay the leader to tell them that they caused their own problems. Although the protagonist is not self-pitying, has a healthy attitude, creates an isolated bubble environment, and does everything else the clinic tells her to do, her condition gradually worsens. The ending offers not a glimmer of home, only a false, rote mantra of optimism which is even more appalling than outright despair.

In other words, the first half tells us that the unscrupulous, greedy, short-sighted forces are killing us with wanton chemical poisoning and wastefulness, and the second half tells us that other unscrupulous, greedy forces are capitalizing on our fears and killing our souls as well. Both halves of the film imply that none of it matters anyway, because our shallow, greedy, unexamined lives are not really worth living, and our spiritually bereft souls are really not worth holding on to without a major overhaul. 

In a way, her disease was the only route she had to any self-awareness, but then she could only define herself in terms of the disease.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • Full-length director/star commentary

So it's basically one of those uplifting, feel-good movie experiences.

Bravo to Julianne Moore for taking on this part, which is nothing like herself, and making it live. The main character, Carol, is not very bright, and has never stopped to examine her pampered but empty life. She speaks in the soft sexiness, cliches, half-formed thoughts, and demure submissiveness of a centerfold. In the hands of a poor actress, this could have been a cartoon, but Moore found the heart of the character and a way to make her sympathetic without being pathetic.

The highly stylized direction was done by Todd Haynes, who is most famous as the director of Velvet Goldmine. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: slightly less than three stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 2.5/4 

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 100% positive reviews, but from a very small number of reviewers.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.0 
  • With their dollars ... a blatantly non-commercial movie, it grossed half a million dollars in the USA
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics - or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Not many people will appreciate this languidly paced movie which offers only problems without solutions or hope, but those who appreciate an artier film will find that the movie manages to create and sustain a special eerie feeling throughout, although it negotiates a fine line between art and pretentiousness. Although it is a successful effort in many ways, be warned that it is troubling, depressing as hell, and ends more pessimistically than it began.

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