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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Safe': Beautifully Controlled, Unnerving


It starts with a sniffle. Then things get worse. And you think you know what's going to happen on screen. But you don't.

"Safe," the elegantly unnerving new film by Todd Haynes, is all about uncertainty. A strange illness descends on protagonist Carol White (Julianne Moore) and the insecurity and unease she feels spills over into the audience. Insidious and provocative, "Safe" refuses to lend a hand, avoids taking sides or pointing the way. Everything that happens in this beautifully controlled enigma is open to multiple interpretations, and that extends finally to the title's meaning as well.

A measure of "Safe's" subversiveness is that it mimics the forms of standard genres only to turn familiar conventions inside out. Its theme, for instance, is apparently the right-thinking one of the dangers of environmental pollution, but the deeper you get into the story, the more uncertain that becomes.

And while its "healthy woman gets sick and fights back" structure has a shrewd and superficial resemblance to numerous movies of the week, "Safe" finally encourages you to view all the stages of Carol's story as toxic in different ways, and even to think that perhaps her time of greatest illness is the closest she comes to a kind of life.

Set in the San Fernando Valley in 1987, "Safe" opens with a polished tracking shot (typical of the sharp, pristine quality of cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy's images) that follows a Mercedes down a manicured street and behind the motorized gates of the luxury home where Carol lives with a bland husband (Xander Berkeley) and his son from a previous marriage.

With her tiny voice and passive character, uninvolved during sex and incapable of sweating in aerobics class, Carol has the doll-like existence of an up-to-date Stepford wife. A "total milkaholic" who wears pearls to lunch and spends her days gardening, exercising and worrying about furniture, Carol is a Nora who never even thinks of slamming the door, who looks around at her elite surroundings and is content.

Julianne Moore, who was a revelation in "Vanya on 42nd Street," continues to do remarkable work in a role she wanted so much she reportedly burst into tears when she got it. Ever so delicately, she animates this detached mouse, allowing us to feel for the kind of passive, emotionally disconnected character whose first thought when illness encroaches is to apologize for the inconvenience she's causing.

As sniffles are succeeded by unexpected tiredness, extended coughing, difficulty breathing and frightening fits, Carol's physical disintegration gets worse and worse. Her doctors are baffled, her husband frustrated, but it is Carol herself who thinks she's found the answer when she spots a flyer that asks the daunting question, "Do you smell fumes? Are you allergic to the 20th Century?"

What Carol is told she has is a disease you catch from your surroundings, something referred to as "an immune system breakdown based on environmental factors." Just living in the modern world, with its 60,000 chemical substances, is what has made her ill. Now she goes nowhere without a filter mask and an oxygen tank, and when she hears about the Wrenwood Center outside of Albuquerque, a place that offers a chemically free safe haven, she decides that this will be her salvation.

Wrenwood is the final, most ambiguous stage of Carol's journey, and what happens within its walls intensifies the questions that "Safe" encourages but refuses to answer conclusively. Is the regimen there truly a cure, and at what cost does it come? Is Carol's illness a reaction to her physical environment or could it be a psychological plea for release from the barren life of a good little girl? And in a world so rife with strange maladies and stranger remedies, how outmoded is the very concept of safeness?

Working with deliberation and controlled precision, writer-director Haynes, whose "Poison" took the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and became a political cause celebre, solidifies his reputation as one of the most intellectually challenging of current directors. Helped by composer Ed Tomney's ominous score, he has created not a simple cautionary tale about the air we breathe but a withering portrait of American society, an attack on the sterility and toxicity of modern life and the profound sense of malaise that can foster. Subtlety is the rarest quality in today's filmmakers, and "Safe" demonstrates why it is valuable as well as scarce.

* MPAA rating: R, for a sex scene and brief language. Times guidelines: intense, disturbing atmosphere.



Julianne Moore: Carol White

Xander Berkeley: Greg White

Peter Friedman: Peter

James Le Gros: Chris

Mary Carver: Nell

Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Todd Haynes. Producers Christine Vachon, Lauren Zalaznick. Executive producers Lindsay Law, James Schamus. Screenplay Haynes. Cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy. Editor James Lyons. Costumes Nancy Steiner. Music Ed Tomney. Production design David Bomba. Art director Anthony Stabley. Set decorator Mary E. Gullickson. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.

* In selected theaters.

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