“We are one with the power that created us. We’re safe and all is well in our world.”
Safe is a movie about a lot of things. It’s about class. It’s about gender. It’s about health hysteria in modern America. I think it’s also a film about spaces, and this is what caught my attention more than anything. In the slow discomfort of a film like this, the beauty is in the cinematic craft. Safe uses formal elements of cinema masterfully, and it begs to be analyzed more than it cares to entertain.
Julianne Moore plays Carol White, an upper class housewife in a stagnant but functioning marriage. She meets up with her cold friends, discussing fad diets, until she becomes ill. She is soon convinced that her environment, the 20th century itself, is causing her illness. She seeks help from fringe medical specialists while her husband and primary care providers doubt her beliefs. We watch her unravel and try to find a “safe” place where she can put herself back together again.
I do some of my best analysis when I start to get bored. Maybe that’s a strategy of slow cinema. Director Todd Haynes relishes in long takes and moving the camera far away from the actors, shrinking them down in the frame. Safe isn’t a fast movie by any means, and it leaves you a lot of time to think. It feels like homework at times. Still, though, you get a lot of time to consider it. I considered why the frame always has frames inside it. Paintings, mirrors, vertical bars, square furniture – this movie is incredibly rectangular. The obvious interpretation is that Carol is meant to seem trapped in all these frames, but I think there’s also something to be said about how much people just love putting things in boxes. There’s an obsession with compartmentalization, and it’s rarely broken for the duration of the movie.
The film also asks you to consider why Carol is sick. It’s the driving force of the plot, after all. You can probably guess that it’s never explicitly explained. Rather, you’re forced to consider what is intangibly causing her illness. Is it really the chemicals, or is it more broadly the 20th century? What does that mean? I think the movie is so explicit in its depiction of gender, class, and other societal factors that there are a lot of things to blame. It’s a stagnant, upper class existence bubbling with formalities that finally serves as a catalyst for something awful. She has energy. She’s passionate about something. Carol’s illness might be a good thing. That’s my take, at least.
There’s a clear two-act structure that reminds me of Room (2015). Act One is a problem. Act Two is an attempt at a solution. For Safe, I think I enjoyed the former more. The second half has a lot more dialogue as Carol meets people similar to her and tries to recover, but I can’t shake the feeling that the movie works best when it’s about the real world. You get a lot more of the rectangular, horrifying America in the first act. It seems more focused on the movie’s themes. The second half is more open-ended and has its powerful moments, but I remember the first act more, and I almost wish the structure would have been more consistent throughout.
Safe isn’t the easiest watch. It’s distance and uncomfortable. You’ll find it hard to latch onto anyone, but it will leave you more time to appreciate what a thoughtful movie it proves to be. Its power lies in its stillness, and if you can find yourself in the mood to sit with it for a while, you’ll have a lot to chew on afterwards.
Films Left to Watch: 831