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  Safe Chemical World
Year: 1995
Director: Todd Haynes
Stars: Julianne Moore, Peter Friedman, Xander Berkeley, Susan Norman, Kate McGregor-Stewart, Mary Carver, Steven Gilborn, April Grace, Peter Crombie, Ronnie Farer, Jodie Markell, Lorna Scott, James LeGros, Martha Velez, Janel Moloney, Jessica Harper, Beth Grant
Genre: Drama, Science FictionBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 2 votes)
Review: Carol White (Julianne Moore) is a typical Californian housewife in 1987: she makes sure her house is neat and tidy, that her husband (Xander Berkeley) and stepson are well fed and happy, she meets her fellow housewives and attends aerobics classes and restaurants with them, and all is going well. She never even contemplates that anything could go wrong with this lifestyle, that is until she hears from one of her friends about a death in their family. Somehow this disturbs Carol, but she carries on as normal until soon after she begins to feel unwell, though nothing she can put her finger on...

If you've ever had the feeling while going through your daily existence that something somewhere is not right with the apparently uneventful routine you have settled into, then writer and director Todd Haynes' Safe should strike an unwelcome chord. Taking on the general dissatisfaction with modern life, he drew on what seemed to be the beginning of the nineties paranoia and need for the re-establishing of a balance in the world, whether personal or natural, and transformed it into the kind of nightmare where it is impossible to pin down precisely what is the matter, and all you can say by way of explanation is that you simply do not feel right.

This is taken to extremes in the character of Carol who is about as shallow as they come, content to go with the flow whether it's what her friends think or what her husband wants to do. No rebel she: that is until her body begins its own rebellion, and she grows more and more ill, as if she is allergic to the world in general. After a coughing fit when out driving - there was a large truck spewing out fumes in front of her car - she opts to visit the doctor, but all he can tell her is that he can find nothing wrong and offers some vague advice about her diet. Yet soon Carol is suffering what look like panic attacks but could also be a serious reaction to... whatever.

Safe is a difficult film to categorise. Is it science fiction, where Mother Earth is reasserting herself by making the population sicker one by one? Is it a horror movie, where the protagonist is undergoing the kind of body dread that became fashionable in eighties shockers? Is it a social commentary, satirising the middle class suburbanites and their useless fads and lack of perception? Or is it an allegory of AIDS, where a disease appears apparently from nowhere and insidiously introduces itself into the lives of the average population who believed they were "safe"? It could be any or all of those things, and what gives the film its resonance is that its themes are as hard to define as the condition Carol is suffering.

If there is a bigger picture that Haynes is addressing, then it's that sense of the modern world letting us down; we never hear anything of politics, but the leaders that Carol looks to, first her husband and then when he disappoints her a New Age collective, point to a lack of faith in the powers that be. After she has collapsed at a baby shower, which is doubly horrifying to her for the mortifying embarrassment as well as the physical implications, Carol's doctor looks for a psychological explanation, but that's no help either and by the second half of the film she has gone to live at a retreat with fellow sufferers led by the upbeat Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), yet the creeping, sinister quality of the film does not go away, if anything, it increases. Her speech at the end reveals that she is no closer to understanding what is going on than we are, or her superiors are, and Haynes leaves his heroine isolated and adrift by the troubling close. A cold yet concerned work, Safe rewards patience with its deliberate stylings. Music by Ed Tomney.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Todd Haynes  (1961 - )

Intriguing American arthouse writer-director whose student film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story created a big fuss, and is still banned to this day. The episodic Poison was a disappointing follow up, but Safe was heralded as a triumph. His document of glam rock, Velvet Goldmine, wasn't as well received, however Far From Heaven, a 1950's-set melodrama, was Oscar-nominated, as was the similarly-set romance Carol. In between those were an offbeat take on Bob Dylan, I'm Not There, and a miniseries of Mildred Pierce. He followed them with the apparently out of character children's story Wonderstruck.

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