Eyes on the Critics' Prize: Safe
The first Boston citation that really made me sit up and take notice of the group, during the first year I was attending school and absorbing cinema in that city, was the Best Cinematography prize for Alex Nepomniaschy's lensing of Safe in 1995. That season, the bulk of the prizes were being posted to Shanghai Triad, a typically dazzling light-show from the Zhang Yimou factory. The Oscar eventually went to the emerald greens, flying dirtclots, and battlefield immersions of Braveheart. At a stage in my movie education where "best cinematography" still meant "prettiest pictures," the Boston crowd's recognition of Safe's intimidating symmetries, its freezing pastels, and its wide-angle hyperbolizing of banal Valley interiors was a real wake-up call. Clearly, I would need to rent the movie as soon as the VHS bowed (!), motivated not just by a plotline that sounded so nervy and elliptical but by a panel-certified promise of visual imagination.
Granted, the indelible visuals of Safe have a great deal to do with the director's labors of framing the shot and placing the camera. How much this prize ought to have been shared between Nepomniaschy and Haynes is up for debate, yet it's notable that no other Haynes film has really looked like Safe, not even in the moments of Velvet Goldmine (shot by Maryse Alberti) or of Far from Heaven, I'm Not There, or Mildred Pierce (all shot by Ed Lachman) that evoke the antiseptic domesticities or the deoxygenated atmospheres that are so crucial to the earlier film. Those tropes get a very particular and brilliantly effective workout in Safe, and all the more so since the film was made for almost nothing, inside relatives' houses and a lot of other existing, creatively marshaled locations. Beyond the 2001/Clockwork Orange-style vertical lines, flat planes, and rectilinear severity of so many shots, and beyond the Fassbinder-ish way that Nepomiaschy and Haynes frame characters within nested boxes and under flat light (such that even casual encounters feel depersonalized and stagy), look how often the air just hangs there in Safe. Julianne Moore's line readings constantly suggest that Carol is being asphyxiated, but for reasons that make sense if you've seen the film, we have to feel that Carol is definitely getting air, and that something weird might be in that air.
There's a subtly frizzy quality to the light in Safemaking sunrays and pools of color diffuse a bit even in brightly lit rooms and sharply lensed shots. This lighting casts a slight blur in the women's locker room, the hair salon, the living room with the wrong-color couch, the sitting room with its DNA-shaped staircase, and even the "restorative" ceramic igloo where Carol eventually winds up. This quality of the light, not dry but not damp, not gaseous so much as atomically dense, makes the airspace in Safe matter in an almost literal sense, holding its own against the man-made structures and objects that are made so conspicuous in Haynes's shots. Carol moves through a vacuous, plastic universe, and later proceeds to an ostensibly cleansing, fresh-air retreat, but in all of them, she is constantly and unnervingly touched by vaguely visible, vaguely palpable molecules. What are those molecules? What do they bear within them or convey between them? Is there something inside them that makes Carol sick? (All the white noise in the sound design immeasurably assists this quietly creepy dimension of the lighting schemes.)
Nepomniaschy frequently has to help us locate Carol within very long and wide-angled shots, particularly by the standard of most interior shooting. Yet at the same time, Carol White is the last person in the world who should attract a spotlight, or a key light, or a backlit halo, which would feel all wrong for this profoundly recessive woman. Nepomniaschy is really ingenious, then, at helping us pinpoint Carol without violating the invisibility and insubstantiality that are fundamental to Haynes's and Moore's conception of her, using geometries within the frame or the softest caress of color or glow to highlight her when necessary, just the littlest bit. In other scenes where the camera is closer, as when Carol attends the allergist's office, the ugly, fluorescent lighting of the space is somehow just soft enough around Carol that we feel some compassion for her, some human weight and latent loveliness in her body. In this way, lighting itself extends an invitation to empathize, counteracting the institutional chill that encases her (including, for some viewers, the chill of the script itself, though Haynes's writing doesn't register that way with me). Something impalpable in these shots provokes us to worry and hurt for Carol, not mock her as a Barbie doll, or reject her as a zombie, or think of her only as a rhetorical stand-in for ourselves. Nor do we just sit there, helplessly perplexed as we might well have been by this soft-spoken San Fernando cypher. The light warms Carol as much as possible, even as it refrigerates her. I love, by the way, how Nepomniaschy allows Moore her freckles in scenes like these, more so than a lot of D.P.'s have done, and he doesn't adopt the easy strategy of making Moore's natural pallor register melodramatically as a signal of dangerous anemia.
Equally marvelous are Safe's shots in daringly low light: the overhead sex scene between Carol and her husband, the late-night prowl in the garden, the testy marital exchange across a mile-wide bed, the final straight-to-camera shot. In these moments, little except the crest of a cheekbone, the angle of a brow, or the copper sheen of her badly permed curls stands between Carol and a kind of Stygian oblivion. That such details communicate from within such broad, wide, grayed-out canvases, and that Carol's last, indelible lines ("I love you... I love you...") resonate as both encouraging and harrowing from within this world of shadow, have a lot to do with Moore's and Haynes's genius. But again, some of the credit is due to the precise calibrations of pessimism and hopeful sympathy that the cinematography invests in Carol's anxious days and in her waning, bruise-colored nights.
Safe's micro-budget miracles and nifty visual tricks don't stop here. Maybe that disastrous baby shower gets a little too pink/orange toward the end of the sequence, but there's a nice against-the-grain kick to any LA sunset that's allowed to look like lox that's been sitting too long at the buffet. I also love how the potted palms in the corners of those baby-shower shots don't remotely suggest a cute, predictable oasis of greenery and fresh air. If anything, they look brackish and black-leafed, as though the plants have got environmental illness, too, but like so much else in Nepomniaschy's shots, the effect isn't so strong that you notice right away. In general, Nepomniaschy cooperates well with the movie's smart production design, delicately highlighting props, shapes, and other visual triggers that make a suburban kitchen look subliminally close to a therapeutic center, or that foster a rhyme between a living room and a hospital room. The images guide our eyes in these and other ways, despite an overall aesthetic and a thematic framework that absolutely require the austere dehumanization of the film. The camera can't look like it's guiding us, or gratifying us at all, or even speaking our language.
Nepomniaschy hasn't had nearly the career one would project for the guy who made Safe look like a million bucks, despite having nothing but nickels to work with. He gave Joe Carnahan's Narc a nicely enervated texture and tint, but there's not much in it you haven't seen in other policiers. He filmed Julia Stiles falling in love with a prince, Drew Barrymore with a teacher, and a multi-culti group of high-school students with Antonio Banderas's dancing. He was the second-unit photographer on Country Strong and on most of D.J. Caruso's movies. I have no idea what to make of this successful but undistinguished résumé, but clearly, the most important signs of Safe's legacy fall elsewhere than the D.P.'s own filmography. I have thought a lot about Nepomniaschy's work in Safe while noting the rise of recent indie phenom Jody Lee Lipes, whose lensing of the apartment in Tiny Furniture recalled the deadening homespaces of Safe, but just a bit more preciously. His low-lighting of Martha Marcy May Marlene is often clever or evocative, and a few times, as in the swimming/diving scene, extremely resourceful, yet his images don't "stick" with me in the same way, and his visual strategies for coaxing inchoate, internalized trouble out of Elizabeth Olsen's remarkable face seem just a shade coarser and more obvious than how Nepomniaschy's camera interacts with Moore's equally remarkable face. Even the images I think I know best in Safe continue to pay new dividends the longer I dwell on them. I'll never know why Nepomniaschy doesn't have more filmmakers begging to work with him, but I'm glad he has one critics' prize to call his own, in recognition of one of the best and best-lensed American movies of its decade.
Previously in this series: Dead Ringers ('88)