The scariest movie of 1995 according to Wes Craven and one I consider to be among the best of the 90s, Safe is a complex film that proves much too elusive for summary. If pressed I'd say it's partly about a person, Carol (Julianne Moore), who's playing a role: mother, wife, "woman." She's someone who has no real identity, no core, and therefore floats through life trying to hit all the established marks, doing what's expected and aiming to please. During a scene in which Carol is having her hair dried at a beauty salon there's a dissolve that illustrates this automoton-like aspect of her "personality" perfectly (robot-evoking headgear aside):
"With her pink clothes and porcelain skin, Carol blends into her surroundings like a suburbanite chameleon, an expensive, mid-eighties accessory among many, or an Ibsenesque doll made to be seen and, as she stutters and stumbles through most of her dialogue, determinedly not heard." [X]
Contrary to the impression Wes Craven's remark might give, Safe isn't scary in a traditional "horror film" sense. It's discomforting, unsettling, cold, even subversive. Whoever called it "a horror film of the soul" came up with a very apt description.
INTERVIEWER: Many films don’t allow much room for the viewer to enter into them.
HAYNES: They don't want that narrative process interrupted. It's a perfect system, let's not mess with it. But it's exactly at that place where we unfortunately find ourselves identifying in stories and messages that re-affirm the world exactly as it is, in its worst aspects. And that's where I find narrative film to be the most frightening, because it's so powerful. It's hard to find an equivalent in other art mediums, for me at least, that has such a symbolic impact on the way we think about the world and about ourselves. Films reflect and instruct us at the same time, and that's strong stuff. So I do delight in the idea that by playing around, tinkering or upsetting that process of identification a little bit, people have to think more about what they're seeing, who's telling them what and why. A viewer has to ask the question: where's this idea coming from? Without losing all the pleasure that's part of that process. [X]
Haynes' own description of Carol from the DVD liner notes gets at what's most complex and interesting about the film:
"Carol White is established as a character whose entire sense of self is provided by the external world. She moves through the patterns, the routines, the immediate material goals which define her existence. She is, in effect, presupposed by her environment. But it soon becomes clear that something is very wrong, both with Carol's body and the pervasive world around her —but how to change either one is too overwhelming a task. Instead the task at hand becomes controlling each one's exposure to the other; in other words, disengaging the body from its environment. This is not easily achieved and is experienced in Carol as a crisis in identity."