No Safe place

Todd Haynes' new feature is the ultimate horror film for the '90s

The empathy Haynes expresses for his protagonist recalls the sad dignity he brought to singer Karen Carpenter's story in his first film Superstar (1988). If you haven't seen that completely original blend of black comedy and pathos, you'd better find a film fan who's got a dub copy, because it ain't gonna make it to your local video store any time soon. Both the estate of Carpenter and the Mattel corporation threatened legal action if Haynes didn't pull the film from circulation--he used Barbie-like dolls to dramatize the singer's slow descent into anorexia.

Both that film and Safe are about the traps we make for ourselves--the unfortunate human tendency to ignore or trivialize bad feelings. Haynes turned Carpenter into a plastic doll as a symbol of her own self-imposed exile from the pain in her life. Carol has done the same thing, and her body chafes against the effort.

Safe is a scary, fascinating riddle in which the audience must provide the answer for themselves. Just don't accuse Todd Haynes of ambiguity for its own sake--the layers of complex meaning that surround his film attest to the inscrutability of his profound themes, not some effort by the filmmaker to be "deep." The fact that he's asking you to do so much of the work indicates his respect for the intelligence of American moviegoing audiences. Safe is anything but--it's a deceptively mild-mannered peek at the chaos of identity.

Safe. Sony Pictures Classics. Julianne Moore, Peter Friedman, James LeGros. Written and directed by Todd Haynes. Opens Sept 22 at the Inwood.

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