Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Todd Haynes: Safe


“You know our couch? Our beautiful couch?…Totally toxic.”

That's Julianne Moore explaining how she got "environmental sickness" in Todd Haynes' amazing and brilliant 1995 film Safe. I had read about it before and wanted to see it for quite some time but didn't really come to it thinking it to be another one of those "art films" exploring "the sick soul of the suburbs" and the ennui of materialist-consumerist life in modern day America. Well it definitely is all that but it is also very intelligent, very sensitive, even horrifying and disturbing in ways unlike other films of the genre (like American Beauty for example which pales very badly in comparison to this).

The first part of the film is part Stepford Wives and part Antonioni's Red Desert. Julianne Moore plays a vacuous hausfrau in an affluent southern californian neighbourhood who is really deep into her empty and shallow lifestyle. She screams in horror when she sees that the couch that was delivered to her is of the "wrong" colour. She has sex as if it were just another part of her job. It makes one think about Marx's theory of alienating labour. As it happens one day she just can't take it anymore, it is as if her body and mind rebel against the status quo and seemingly she develops symptoms and allergies to all kinds of household things. Things get much worse when she finds herself in a new age "holistic" treatment centre peddling self-love and dime-a-dozen platitudes as a cure-all.

The second half of the film set in the treatment retreat lacks the visual panache of the scenes set in the apartments (which in their shot compositions reminded me of Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle which is a much more good-humoured critique of the same modern living) but it more than makes up for it with its scathingly satirical bite. All the talk of self-love gets even more disturbing after Haynes tells us (in the commentary) that he first read about it a book about AIDS. The author was advising people suffering from AIDS that if they loved themselves enough they wouldn't have gotten sick. The last scene with Julianne Moore in her "igloo" saying "I love you, I really love you" to the mirror is one of the most disturbing scenes I have seen in recent American movies.

In short a masterpiece, must-watch. A long essay on the film here which looks good. Haven't read it yet.

13 comments:

puccinio said...

I liked ''Safe'' a lot but I never really got why there was such hoopla over it. Some critics(especially those at Village Voice) were calling it the best American film of the 90's and whatnot. Well the best is ''Casino'' or ''Goodfellas'' or ''The Age of Innocence'' or ''Kundun'' or ''Short Cuts'' or ''Unforgiven'' or ''Dead Man''.

But then Julianne Moore gives a dazzling performance in this film and for that it's worth the adulation it's getting. I liked haynes' ''Far From Heaven'' very much so I'd expect a masterpiece from him eventually(now that false prophets like P. T. Anderson and his ilk have revealed themselves).

his Dylan biopic should be interesting.

antonia said...

have not seen it - as ususal - but i have heard that another interpretation is that this is how it metaphorically looks like when women realize they live in the patriarchy and how hermetic & inescapable it is.

Alok said...

puccinio: did you read Jim Hoberman's review of his latest film..

of your list I like only Short Cuts and Goodfellas. I haven't seen Kundun and Dead Man and I found two other scorsese on your list very dull. and Unforgiven is a film I feel irritated with. My list will probably include some of David Lynch's works Lost Highway perhaps. I am perfectly okay to let go the entire two decades of american cinema if you can just save David Lynch's films.

Also agree about the two Andersons though I have seen only one film each by them.

Alok said...

antonia: You might not have read/seen The Stepford Wives. Very entertaining film and a great concept.

In this film the criticism of patriarchy is not explicit. It is more of a critique of American culture and way of living overall. It is true that many feminist theorists identify the capitalist-consumerist culture which transforms women into submissive and dumb consumers as another arm of patriarchy and in that sense this film does critique patriarchy.

Also worth noticing is that the disease in this film affects both men and women. Both of them are there in that treatment retreat. In this sense it is different from "Hysteria" which was a woman's disease and which had similar feminist implications.

Alok said...

The essay I linked to in the post mentions this story The Yellow Wallpaper which I hadn't heard of before. It is a nice and interesting story and the film I think makes reference to it too in one scene.

Of course the central problem is the denial of subjectivity, the difficulty of living a life in which inner and outer world are in harmony. Patriarchy, consumer culture, shallow and misleading new age therapies, denial all of them make the problem worse.

antonia said...

i don't know, that can all very well be - as i said i have not seen it (Stepford wives not either - but alok, i got myself a membership card for lending dvd, finally. so now i can catch up with the last 100 years of film history)....only of what i heard it is so claustrophobic, and now in addition to yellow wallaper and what you say about the denial of subjectivty etc only makes it a better critique of society in genereal... of course not only the patriarchy but in combination with capitalism racism and the ususal other stuff which affectes men too. It looks like it is a very appropriate parable on society. But i would think the implicit and not criticism of patriarchy etc. is a strength rather.

The Last Cigarette said...

I just ran into this blog randomly. It's wonderful. I went from Moravia's Contempt to Hayne's Safe. Twin Peaks! Rainer Rilke! Etc, etc! I'm bookmarking this. Cheers
-another capricorn from Baltimore

puccinio said...

Seriously ''Casino'' and ''The Age of Innocence'' dull?!? Cahiers du Cinema called ''Casino'' the most important film arriving at the end of cinema's first centenary and it's also the most harsh criticism of neo-conservatism in cinema. But then people have to be smart enough to realize that gangster = businessman. And ''The Age of Innocence'' is being considered by some as Scorsese's highest achievement.

Actually I like Wes Anderson, especially his first film ''Bottle Rocket''. I don't care for the other Anderson.

But what I dislike most about the young American directors is that people are looking at these guys as if they're a New Wave or something which is ridiculously gullible and stupid. Not only does it put undue pressure on these guys but these people deliberately set themselves up to be dissappointed. One good American director that's come in the 90's is Tim Robbins who's made probably the most effective argument against capital punishment in ''Dead Man Walking'' and did it without any sentimental or ideological axe to grind.

And I've never been a David Lynch fan...I liked his early movies and I liked ''Blue Velvet'' but after seeing Bunuel and Rivette, he's not that special. But I did like ''Lost Highway'' very much, though I don't think it's the greatest breakthrough in psychology since Jacques Lacan which some have been trumpetting it as.

Alok said...

It is true what you say about these young directors being under too much pressure. It definitely happened with David Fincher for example who is technically very accomplished but too self-conscious for his own good perhaps. I find the same with both the Andersons too. I don't think there ever was such pressure with the hollywood directors who started in the early seventies and went on to make such great films.

I have been a big fan of David Lynch ever since I got seriously interested in films, not just in watching but thinking about its form and style. What I find so inspiring and fascinating in Lynch is his use of abstractions - visual, aural and narrative within a standard set of genres and familiar narratives and settings. There are of course many avant-garde and experimental filmmakers who are doing all kinds of things with sound and visuals, some of them even similar to Lynch (that ambient buzzing sound for example is almost de rigeur), but their complete lack of interest in narratives and human stories leave their works suitable only for film courses. Lost Highway for example is a fantastic inversion of standard Hollywood film-noir. It uses the same narratives, same character types and situations and gives them a completely new spin.

I find it disappointing that so much of mainstream cinema is still shackled within the conventions of standard mimetic narratives. I am not making a case for fantasies of course, their style is even more mimetic, this desire to simulate reality, which is always superficial reality. In comparison to other art forms abstraction is still not so common in cinema.

I have never cared for all that Lacan and psychoanalysis stuff. I did try to read Slavoj Zizek's essay on Lost Highway but couldn't get beyond the first few pages (an example is here)

Alok said...

last cigarette: you are welcome and thanks. and you have got a great name for yourself too.

puccinio said...

----------------------------
I find it disappointing that so much of mainstream cinema is still shackled within the conventions of standard mimetic narratives.
--------------------------

By mimetic do you mean...beginning, middle or end or that films aren't all like Lynch movies which aren't in the least bit ''classical''. But then Lynch films do follow a schematic or ideas.

--------------
I am not making a case for fantasies of course, their style is even more mimetic, this desire to simulate reality, which is always superficial reality. In comparison to other art forms abstraction is still not so common in cinema.
----------------

I don't know what you mean by ''abstraction'' but then that's always the case everywhere. I mean directors like Luis Bunuel or Federico Fellini were always very uncommon and odd wherever they went.

My problem with Lynch is that his films is that he tends not to go far enough and that compared to the directors who influenced him he's kind of tame and even his narratives are really not that breathtaking when you see something like ''Celine and Julie Go Boating'' or Vera Chytilova's ''Daisies'' or Laughton's first film.

Cheshire Cat said...

I haven't seen "Safe" but I want to. "Far from Heaven" was great, and I'm really looking forward to "I'm Not There", despite being woefully ignorant about Bob Dylan.

As for directors going far enough, I think Lynch has done that and more with "Inland Empire". And Rivette with "Out 1", which is awesome, but also risible. Less of that can be a good thing...

Bruno Serge said...

It's a very Kafkaesque movie, indeed. Nice insight into a very shallow existence and lifestyle, that a lot of people lead.

But I guess I kept a certain distance from the character because I can't understand her. She is basically a spoiled bitch and it's her own fault (because of her own inaction) if she went totally insane.

So it's a movie about a spoiled, superficial woman who probably craves for attention. I've seen this type of psychological disorder in teenagers who want to be noticed and taken care of. It's a movie about bullshit. Bullshit diseases, bullshit conditions, bullshit necessities, bullshit lifestyle.

Why is the last scene shocking? I don't get it. I was expecting the guy in an alien suit to pop out behind her. That would have given me a heart attack. But it didn't happen.

It's just her succumbing to all the bullshit she was fed, into that kind of religion/new age philosophy of self love. Everything infected her negatively since the beginning. It's like she had no mental immune system - while the physical one was probably totally fine. She was too influenced by every little bullshit.