This week’s Hit Me with Your Best Shot is another film I had never heard of (hence great thing about being a part of the project!) called Safe. It is directed by Todd Haynes and is definitely not for everyone. In fact, I can say confidently that most of my normal readers will hate it.
You see how it says “Best film of the decade” by the Village Voice on this poster? Well, let’s just say that Safe seems exactly like the kind of movie which would be the best film of the decade for the hipster Village Voice magazine.
That’s not to say I didn’t like it but it is such a weird movie. It’s slow and puzzling and not a lot happens. Most of my readers will find it extremely boring but I thought it was interesting. Not one I will watch again but it was strange enough to be worth a watch.
The story centers around Julianne Moore’s Carol who is a homemaker that suddenly becomes ill without any seeming cause. It is later defined as ‘multiple chemical sensitivity’. The movie never really explains if this is a quack diagnosis or a legitimate illness. The doctors in the movie don’t seem to buy into it but she just keeps getting sicker.
They send her to a shrink convinced it is a psychiatric problem but he is of little help. She tells him “aren’t you supposed to be the one asking all the questions”. But it may be a psychiatric condition because she does seem to be embracing chemicals like when she gets a perm and a manicure at the same time (any more chemical thing than that?).
It’s hard because we don’t know enough about her before the illness to know whether it is psychiatric or not. She’s a very strange character. I can’t think of any other way to describe it.
Safe is one of those art-house pictures where the suburbs are stifling and housewives do nothing but go to lunches and have babies. They try to make her husband seem like a bad guy but I never really bought that. He doesn’t ever get angry. He comes and visits her later on and he does ask questions. She’s so quiet and mousey that I felt kind of sorry for him. How is he supposed to know what is going on when she is so non-communicative?
But regardless it is clear they don’t have much love as a couple and are more comfortable with their lifestyle than anything else (both of them). Then Carol gets sick and she keeps running into different chemicals whether at a baby shower or at the dry cleaners. Eventually she ends up in the hospital where she see’s an ad for a treatment center.
It is billed as a clean spa but it turns out to be a cult led by Peter Dunning played by Peter Friedman. He uses a lot of self help junk that in the end blames the ill for their illness and doesn’t really help them to get better.
In fact, Carol seems to be getting worse despite eventually moving into a completely sterile igloo. This hastening is blamed on her in the counseling sessions.
She’s still sick but oddly enough in her new home she is happy, cult and all. So what is Carol sick from? And will she ever be safe?
We leave the movie with her smiling and happy. The people in the cult have thrown her a Birthday party. They seemingly love her. What does that mean for her? I have no idea! That’s what makes this movie weird. The cult is a happy ending and seemingly preferable to suburban life. So weird but it oddly works.
As someone who has dealt with my own share of mental illness I found Safe’s lack of answers both intriguing and frustrating. I like to think there is the one thing I can do that will solve the problem and I will never have a panic attack again but that’s just not the case. I’m not sure if that’s the message of the movie? Maybe? Who knows?
Safe looks great throughout so it is hard to pick a best shot. Cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy did an excellent job capturing the isolation of Carol in her 80’s suburban life. I’m sure a lot of people will pick this shot but at the beginning we see Carol in a long panning shot drinking a tall glass of milk. Behind her are painters with fumes, plastic that smells and she’s staring right at the camera which is unusual for any movie.
Carol feels very small amongst all the whiteness on the curtains, painters, cupboards and even her milk. This moment not only foreshadows the future allergens that will consume Carol but it also shows how unnatural she is in her own environment. Look how stiff she sits in her chair, and who drinks milk in a room like that with people painting? Why not go outside and drink? There’s just something so strange about it and in a way that captures this movie. It’s a weird but intriguing film.