Julianne Moore gives a breakthrough performance as Carol White, a Los Angeles housewife in the late 1980s who comes down with a debilitating illness. After the doctors she sees can give her no clear diagnosis, she comes to believe that she has frighteningly extreme environmental allergies. A profoundly unsettling work from the great American director Todd Haynes, Safe functions on multiple levels: as a prescient commentary on self-help culture, as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis, as a drama about class and social estrangement, and as a horror film about what you cannot see. This revelatory drama was named the best film of the 1990s in a Village Voice poll of more than fifty critics.
Todd Haynes’ second feature film, Safe, comes to Blu-ray through The Criterion Collection, who present the film with a new 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer in its original aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 4K transfer was scanned from the original negative.
Criterion’s Blu-ray improves radically over the old Sony DVD in just about all areas. The image looks far more natural first off, all compression and digital artifacts gone: the image is clean and smooth in motion, looking far more filmic. Film grain remains and looks far more natural here, though isn’t too, too heavy, just a little more noticeable in darker scenes. The image is also much sharper, delivering the intricate details of the 80’s setting, and the final sequence in the porcelain tent delivers more details in the walls as opposed to what the DVD could show.
Another rather large difference is the presentation of the colours, which are better rendered here. I hesitate to say they’re “more natural” as I don’t think I would go that far: there are scenes where they come off colder and the picture does look tinted. But the balance and saturation certainly looks better. Moore looks far sicklier here in her skin tones, which I would think would be the desired effect. The various 80’s pink and aqua colours also look brilliantly rendered with excellent saturation. Black levels are strong, and don’t appear to be crushing out any details, which is good because there are a number of nighttime scenes that are extremely dark.
The print is in excellent shape and I don’t recall any blemishes (at least I didn’t notice any), marking another improvement over the old DVD that was littered with them, and I can’t say I noticed any digital anomalies as well, again another improvement over the old noisier DVD. All in all the restoration and transfer are quite pleasing, far surpassing the previous home video releases.
Interestingly, despite the film’s rather entrancing sound design that utilizes (mostly) electronic music and a low bass drone/hum the film opts for a simple mono track, delivered here in 1.0 lossless linear PCM, as opposed to a surround track. Despite the limitation of only have a center channel the track is quite effective. Dialogue is sharp and crystal clear, the film’s 80’s soundtrack manages to burst with life when appropriate, and that low droning noise and the film’s score still proves effective. Range is surprisingly wide and fidelity is also fantastic. It’s fairly expansive for a mono track.
(Though some may see it as a downgrade since Sony’s DVD was listed as a 2-channel surround track this is actually not the case: the old DVD was really still a mono track as sound was only delivered through the center speaker. Nothing ever sounded to expand anywhere else.)
Sony’s DVD only contained a commentary, along with the typical production notes and cast/crew filmographies that were common on early DVD releases. Criterion carries over the commentary and then adds some great additional features to the release.
The audio commentary, from 2001, again features director Todd Haynes, actor Julianne Moore, and producer Christine Vachon, and it’s a surprisingly entertaining one. Haynes and Moore basically have run of the track, with Vachon only chiming in on occasion, but the group as a whole talk about the development of the film, the inspirations for the overall story and various moments throughout, while also talking about the character and remarking on reactions (which weren’t all that great initially, though the general opinion had improved by the time this track was recorded). There are also plenty of stories from the set, most of which are amusing, particularly since it sounds as though Haynes shot most of the film at the homes of family and friends, and Moore recalls how she starved herself to look so sickly (she apparently celebrated the last day of filming with multiple orders of French toast). I especially liked a section where the group talks about independent films and how much easier it was in the 90’s to get a film made, while it was getting harder in 2001 (and now, in 2014, it’s far harder), as well as Haynes’ and Moore’s thoughts on the character of Carol, which prove to be especially illuminating. Any references to the previous DVD are still here (it’s charming to hear Haynes be so happy about the film finally being released in widescreen) but it otherwise hasn’t aged much. It’s an excellent track and one I’m glad Criterion carried over.
A rather cool addition to this release is Haynes’ first “real” film, a 1978 short call The Suicide. What’s interesting about this is that Haynes actually thought the film was gone but a friend of his still had a copy, which he found just this past year. Made by Haynes when he would have been 17 or 18, the film’s central premise focuses on a young boy who experiences severe bullying when his mother moves him to another school. The young boy, unable to face it much more, begins mutilating himself, I assume with the intent of killing himself. It’s not told in this straightforward a fashion, though, and is told more in a stream-of-consciousness manner, so to speak, with the narrative severely broken up, bouncing between the boy hurting himself, to his mother’s discussions with him about the move and talking to him about his issues (basically telling him to more or less suck it up in the most loving way she can), and then some of the events, all of it in a very dreamlike state.
I’m sure the film is very personal to Haynes and reflects actual events he went through, so I don’t want to sound like I’m belittling it any way when I say a film with this type of subject matter is something I’ve seen filmed or written about by teenagers many, many times before, but I will add this may be the most effectively told one I’ve come across. The editing in particular is brilliantly done, especially by someone at such a young age. The opening cuts between shots against the sounds of water drops hitting the sink are quite striking, and then how the film seamlessly moves from one moment to another in a non-linear form is also effectively done; done poorly and the film could lose or confuse the audience but it all comes together nicely. There’s also some effective imagery and some wonderful compositions and it keeps you involved. For something made by a 17-year old it’s professionally done, and though obviously experimental in nature it has a more polished feel, like it was made by someone doing this for a very long time, and not one about to enter film school or even in it. Very effective
As to its condition it’s actually in decent shape all things considered. The transfer is decent enough, actually delivered in 1080p/24hz, but it has some noticeable damage and wear, but it’s not as bad as I would have expected.
Next is a newly recorded conversation between Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore, done exclusively for this release. The conversation expands nicely on the commentary, and does cover some of the same ground but here they get into more detail about the character of Carol, with Moore talking about what attracted her to the character and how she interpreted her. As a bonus there’s actually some casting footage of Moore (very blurry, though) while the two recall how she came to the attention of Haynes and got the role. The two also talk about the film’s release and initial critical reaction and how it managed to twist certain tropes, something that may have confused audiences. Also including some discussion on Far From Heaven it’s a nice reflection on their collaborations together, with some more insights into Safe’s lead character and its themes. The feature runs about 36-minutes.
Criterion then presents an interview with producer Christine Vachon. While she talks about Safe and how they got that film made, she focuses more on her collaboration with Haynes over the years, all the way from first meeting him to his first feature Poison, to Safe, and all the way up to I’m Not There. She also talks a little about the various reactions audiences had to Safe, particularly the one from the LGBT community who were upset the film wasn’t about AIDS and that the film’s one homosexual character isn’t presented in the most positive of lights. This then leads Vachon to talk a bit about “queer cinema” as a movement and some of her other films. At only 16-minutes it’s actually a very illuminating interview about Vachon and Haynes and their work together. Another solid inclusion.
The features then close with the film’s original theatrical trailer, and the included foldout features an essay on the film and its main character by Dennis Lim.
Lim’s essay offers a nice analytical angle but I’m again disappointed at the lack of any sort of scholarly supplement in the disc features themselves. Forgetting that, though, Criterion provides a great selection of supplements, all of which are worth going through.
Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition of Safe offers a great upgrade over Sony’s previous DVD, delivering a far better picture and some wonderful supplementary material. A must for any fans and admirers of the film.