Great Films You Need To See – Safe (1995)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout April with the theme of ‘health and illness’. This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), in this case the Todd Haynes’s underseen modern horror Safe.

There’s something horrifically unsettling about being eaten away by something neither you nor seemingly anyone else can fully comprehend.

Safe PosterReleased in 1995 but set eight years earlier, Todd Haynes’ sublime Safe was originally meant as an AIDS allegory. More than two decades later, the film feels even more prescient, even more nightmarishly potent as the pace of change continues at bewildering speed.

Safe is ostensibly about the meek and vanilla Carol (Julianne Moore) succumbing to what she and we later understand is ‘environmental illness’, a debilitating reaction to the various pollutants, chemicals and god knows what else that are as much a part of modern living as climate change.

However, Haynes’ first true masterpiece is also an unblinking critique of the emptiness of western suburbia as well as a quietly damning indictment of the fraudulent touchy-feely self-help racket that charges top dollar without the results to match.

SafeFollowing a series of warning signs (the first thing we see her do is sneeze), Carol is overcome by a coughing fit while driving her car. Her doctor is as befuddled and nonplussed as her husband (Xander Barkley), while her psychiatrist is equally clueless as to how someone whose seemingly stress-free and privileged life (the most worked up she gets is over an incorrectly coloured new couch being delivered) could physically deteriorate so dramatically.

The second half of the film sees Carol moving from her affluent San Fernando Valley home to a self-ascribed healing centre in the desert run by Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), a self-help guru whose true motivations we suspect are encapsulated in the mansion that looks down on the wood cabins Carol and her fellow residents stay in.

Although largely full of positive, friendly people collectively living with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), the retreat is just that, an escape from the outside world that allows for plenty of motivational talking from Peter but doesn’t appear to provide a magic wand. Indeed, her physical symptoms, if anything, deteriorate further while the death of a resident offers a sobering tonic.

SafeLikewise, the awkward, rambling speech Carol gives at her surprise birthday party near the end of the film about no longer hating herself and the importance of MCS awareness smacks of Kool-Aid platitudes to the extent that she literally runs out of things to say and ends up staring blankly at the others.

The film’s doom-laden tagline – “In the 21st Century, nobody will be safe” – and its theatrical poster featuring a spookily dressed resident of the retreat may seem like misleading marketing, but there’s a genuinely unsettling edge to the film.

Employing the austere aesthetic of Kubrick, Haynes and cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy use slow, methodical tracks and zooms, while Moore is often shot at a distance, as if getting too close would pass on the illness she is struggling to understand.

SafeThere’s an industrial hum underlying the first half of the film that’s reminiscent of Lynch and bores into the brain like a form of tinnitus. The Lynch nods can also be found in the Angelo Badalamenti-esque score by Brendan Dolan and Ed Tomney.

Aftershocks from the earthquake that struck the San Fernando Valley in 1994 were apparently occurring during filming and that rumbling sense of foreboding seeps out of every frame, right until its ambiguous ending that finds Carol trying to hold on to a life that has been blighted by forces she doesn’t understand.

SafeDelivering one her on her very finest performances, Moore makes flesh and blood a part that in lesser hands could have been irritating and one-note. Carol is an empty vessel in many ways, a doll who at one point even resembles a shop floor mannequin at a birthday party she attends with other rich housewives. However, she is also a human being going through a terrifying ordeal and Moore garners our sympathy through a heartbreaking turn that’s imbued with loneliness and fear.

Even more of a cautionary tale now as on its release more than 20 years ago, Safe is a modern horror that doesn’t need the traditional tropes to scare us – modern life will do that job just fine.

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In Retrospect – Children Of Men (2006)

If the terrorist atrocities of 9/11 and 7/7 are the defining moments of this young century, then Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men could arguably be cinema’s most defining response.

Although in essence about a society falling apart due to the fact no children have been born for 18 years, Cuarón’s loose adaptation of P.D. James’ novel is more a parable on the fear of the ‘other’ that has spread since those dreadful events of September 2001.

A truly astounding cinematic experience, Alfonso Cuarón's Children Of Men is profound filmmaking that will shock and awe in equal measure

A truly astounding cinematic experience, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men is profound filmmaking that will shock and awe in equal measure

Refugees, "hunted down like cockroaches" in Children Of Men

Refugees, “hunted down like cockroaches” in Children Of Men

It is also a story of hope and thinly veiled spirituality that sees former activist turned cynical salaryman Theo Faron (Clive Owen) embarking on a perilous journey of redemption to help save the human race from its own destruction.

Set in 2027 Britain, Theo is offered money by his estranged wife Julian (Julianne Moore) – leader of a radical group fighting to protect immigrants’ rights called the Fishes – to escort refugee Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) to the coast. Theo discovers just how important she is to the future of humanity, but must evade both government forces and terrorists if they are to survive.

Julian (Julianne Moore) spells it out to estranged husband Theo (Clive Owen) in Children Of Men

Julian (Julianne Moore) spells it out to estranged husband Theo (Clive Owen) in Children Of Men

Children Of Men is unlike any science fiction film you’ve seen before. While most sci-fi wallows in high concept special effects and extravagant production design, Cuarón adopts an immersive vérité style to show a London on the verge of collapse. The pre-credits scene sets up the film perfectly. As customers in a packed cafe watch TV with despair at the news of the death ‘Baby’ Diego, the world’s youngest person, Theo absent-mindedly buys his coffee and walks out onto a busy London street dominated by piled-up rubbish, run-down public transport and rickshaws. His apathy towards Baby Diego’s death saves his life, however, as seconds later the shop is torn apart by an explosion triggered by the Fishes.

Ageing hippie Jasper Palmer (Michael Caine), no relation to Harry Palmer, in Children Of Men

Ageing hippie Jasper Palmer (Michael Caine), no relation to Harry Palmer, in Children Of Men

The UK, as we learn from government propaganda proudly stating “only Britain soldiers on”, is one of the few countries that hasn’t tipped over into outright anarchy. Society nevertheless seems on the brink of collapse. Refugees desperate to flee the chaos that has gripped much of the world have landed on British shores, only to be met by a police state that “hunts them down like cockroaches”, according to Theo’s friend, ageing anti-establishment hippie Jasper Palmer (Michael Caine).

Theo (Clive Owen) fights for survival in Children Of Men

Theo (Clive Owen) fights for survival in Children Of Men

The masses are told to remain suspicious of immigrants (bringing to mind Cold War East Germany) and walk around in a ghostly daze seemingly resigned to humanity’s gradual extinction. This is nicely observed when Theo goes to see his government minister cousin Nigel who, when asked why he still ‘rescues’ works of art when no-one will be around to appreciate them, responds: “I just don’t think about it.”

Senior rebel Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in Children Of Men

Senior rebel Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in Children Of Men

Cuarón pointedly evokes the holocaust in such provocative and chilling images as refugees staring hopelessly out of caged buses heading for the nightmarish concentration camp located in the former seaside town of Bexhill. In addition, piles of burning cattle bring to mind the apocalyptic scenes seen in Britain during the foot and mouth outbreak.

The use of diagetic and non-diagetic sound is masterfully handled by Cuarón. The sound of attack dogs seems to echo in every frame, while John Taverner’s elegiac, passionately spiritual Fragments of a Prayer is introduced at key moments in the film.

Children Of Men isn’t devoid of humour, however. While society falls apart, ceremonial traditions such as the Royal Horse Guard’s trot down The Mall are still observed. Theo also wears a faded London 2012 top, which is given a blackly ironic twist as it would have been the first Olympics to take place after babies stopped being born. The film isn’t afraid to throw in a few fart gags too.

Theo (Clive Owen) leads Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) to safety in Children Of Men

Theo (Clive Owen) leads Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) to safety in Children Of Men

Owen has never been better as Theo, a reluctant hero who steps up to become Joseph to Kee’s Mary almost in spite of himself. The stellar supporting cast elevate the film, including the always-excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor as Julian’s right-hand man Luke, Ashley’s confused and frightened Kee and Pam Ferris as Fishes member Miriam, a former midwife who gets one of the movie’s most eloquent lines when she observes “very odd what happens in a world without children’s voices”.

Children Of Men‘s most indelible moments come during several bravura one-take shots. An ingeniously filmed chase sequence shot entirely within a car containing Theo, Julian, Luke, Miriam and Kee is chaotic, shocking and astonishing, while a tracking shot of Bexhill being turned into ground zero in the fight between government forces and the rebels is nothing short of extraordinary. You’ll be shaking your head at how Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki pull it off.

Cuarón wisely avoids delving too directly into the causes of the mass sterility, although the theological subtext of the film (the struggle to ensure a child is born to save humanity from itself) suggests divine intervention. A truly astounding cinematic experience, Children Of Men is profound filmmaking that will shock and awe in equal measure.