Safe (1995 film)

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Safe ver1.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byTodd Haynes
Produced byChristine Vachon
Written byTodd Haynes
Music by
CinematographyAlex Nepomniaschy
Edited byJames Lyons
Distributed bySony Pictures Classics
Release date
Running time
119 minutes
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
Box office$512,245[1]

Safe is a 1995 British/American psychological horror film written and directed by Todd Haynes, and starring Julianne Moore. The story is a character study of a suburban California housewife whose life deteriorates under the stress of "environmental illnesses" and seeks hope from "New Age" practitioners with whom she becomes involved.[2] Safe was voted the best film of the 1990s in the 1999 Village Voice Film Poll.


Set in an affluent neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley in 1987, the film recounts the life of a seemingly unremarkable homemaker, Carol White (Julianne Moore) who develops multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS, also known as "Twentieth-Century Disease"). MCS is a medically controversial diagnosis in which a person develops mild to severe non-specific symptoms and believes that these symptoms are triggered by chemicals found in everyday household and industrial products.

Carol passes her days with activities such as gardening, taking clothes to the dry cleaners, and attending aerobics classes. Her marriage is stable but devoid of emotional intimacy, and her son is actually a stepson from her husband's previous marriage. Her friendships are polite but distant.

As she goes about her routine, she slowly begins to develop unpredictable and strange bodily reactions, such as persistent fatigue, uncontrollable coughing (when surrounded by truck exhaust while driving), asthma-like symptoms (at a baby shower), nose bleeds (when getting a perm at a hair salon), vomiting, and eventually convulsions (at the dry cleaners).

Doctors are able to identify only one true allergy: milk, which she drinks frequently in the movie without incident. Doctors are at a loss of how to help her cope or cure her. She attends some psychotherapy sessions, but does not gain any insight into her condition.

After seeing an ad at her community center, she eventually resorts to moving to the New Age/religious retreat in the desert called Wrenwood, which is designed to help people suffering from MCS recover and is led by a man whose "relentless motivational talks amount to psychological fascism."[3]



The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 1995.[4] Sony Pictures Classics acquired distribution rights to the film and released the film in a limited release on June 23, 1995.[5]



Safe received positive reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes reports 85% approval based on 53 reviews,[6][7] and the film holds a score of 76/100 on Metacritic.[8] Janet Maslin, writing in The New York Times, lauds the first half of the film, but concludes that, as “brilliantly as it begins, Safe eventually succumbs to its own modern malady, as the film maker insists on a chilly ambiguity that breeds more detachment than interest”…. “Mr. Haynes makes fools of …[the film’s] New Agers while possibly embracing some of their views.” Another problem, according to Maslin, is that “the shadow of AIDS implicitly hangs over …[Carol’s] decline, but it doesn't help bring Safe to a conclusion worthy of its inspired beginning”.[9]

The ending of the film is highly ambiguous, and has created considerable debate among critics and audiences as to whether Carol has emancipated herself, or simply traded one form of suffocation for an equally constricting identity as a reclusive invalid.[10] Julie Grossman argues in her article "The Trouble with Carol" that Haynes concludes the film as a challenge to traditional Hollywood film narratives of the heroine taking charge of her life, and that Haynes sets Carol up as the victim both of a male-dominated society, and also of an equally debilitating self-help culture that encourages patients to take sole responsibility for their illness and recovery.[11]

Carol's illness, although unidentified, has been read as an analogy for the AIDS crisis of the mid-1980s, as a similarly uncomfortable and largely unspoken "threat" in 1980s Reaganist America.[12]


Safe received seven votes in the British Film Institute's 2012 Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films – with five votes from critics and two from directors – ranking it 323rd and 322nd, respectively.[13] They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, a website which gathers critics' polls, has also found Safe to be the 499th most acclaimed movie of all time.[14]

The movie was widely critically acclaimed, giving Moore her first leading role in a feature film, and gave Haynes a measure of mainstream critical recognition.[15]


  • 1996 Independent Spirit Awards - Nominated for Best Director (Todd Haynes), Best Feature, Best Female Lead (Julianne Moore), and Best Screenplay (Todd Haynes)
  • 1995 Boston Society of Film Critics Awards - Best Cinematography - Alex Nepomniaschy
  • 1995 Seattle International Film Festival - American Independent Award - Todd Haynes
  • 1996 Rotterdam International Film Festival - FIPRESCI Prize Special Mention - Todd Haynes


  1. ^ "Safe". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved October 24, 2016.
  2. ^ Haynes, Todd (2001), "Commentary Track" for The Criterion Collection DVD release of Safe.
  3. ^ Gonsalves, Rob (21 May 2006). "Safe (1995)". E-Film Critic. Retrieved 6 December 2014.
  4. ^ McCarthy, Todd (January 26, 1995). "Review: 'Safe'". Variety. Retrieved October 24, 2016.
  5. ^ "Safe". Sony Pictures Classics. Retrieved October 24, 2016.
  6. ^ Maslin, Janet (23 June 1995), Life of a Hollow Woman, New York Times, retrieved 4 January 2015
  7. ^ Safe, Flixster, Inc., 2015, retrieved March 26, 2018
  8. ^ "Safe Reviews - Metacritic". Metacritic. Retrieved January 8, 2016.
  9. ^ Maslin, Op. cit.
  10. ^ "Todd Haynes Discusses 'Safe,' Letting Go of the Past, Working With Julianne Moore, and 'Carol'". 15 December 2014.
  11. ^ Grossman, Julie (January 2005). "The Trouble with Carol: The Costs of Feeling Good in Todd Haynes's [Safe] and the American Cultural Landscape". Other Voices. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved July 11, 2015.
  12. ^ "Todd Haynes on the unsafe world of Safe". The Dissolve.
  13. ^ "Safe (1995)". British Film Institute. Retrieved January 8, 2016.
  14. ^ "TSPDT - 1,000 Greatest Films (Full List)". They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?. Retrieved January 8, 2016.
  15. ^ "Top 10 Julianne Moore Performances". WatchMojo.

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