A frightened young mother named Amanda (Maria Valverde) is being dragged on her back through a dark marsh. Worms — worms that are everywhere inside the body. “You have to understand what’s important,” the pre-teen David (Emilio Vodanovich) invisibly whispers into her ear canal. “Where’s my daughter?” Amanda asks. That’s not important. Beautiful Carola (Dolores Fonzi) leaning her head out of a car window, her curled blonde hair catching in the wind. A slow river seeps by into everything it touches. You have to pay attention to the details. Horses breeding and dying. Souls in flight.
Adapted from Samanta Schweblin’s 2014 novel of the same name, Claudia Llosa’s faintly delirious “Fever Dream” is a head-trip of a thriller that’s true enough to its title from the moment it starts; it’s a cold shiver of a film that doesn’t unfold so much as it sweats out, the most effective scenes febrile with maternal panic so intense that you can feel the movie hovering between life and death — allure and repulsion. The plot is not a puzzle to be solved, even if its liquid structure is swirling with clues that David urgently diagnoses for their relevance, as if instructing us how to watch a story that he’s seen many times before. Look at this. Ignore that. “Sometimes your eyes aren’t enough.”
Everything is simple enough in broad strokes, and would seem even simpler if we retained the wherewithal to step back and see the big picture. Amanda, a cosmopolitan millennial type who presumably lives in Buenos Aires, takes her five-year-old daughter Nina (Guillermina Sorribes Liotta) on a girls’ trip to an idyllic Argentinian farming village. There she meets the slightly older Carola, a country girl whose golden bikini and disaffected gaze suggest a spiritual disconnect from the land. She’s a natural fashionista living in the kind of place where you need an excuse to be glamorous; in the years since her husband lost her farm, Carola has devoted her life to searching for one.
Amanda is drawn to her. The tourist bonds with the local beauty by confessing her greatest parental anxiety: She refers to it as “the rescue distance,” which happens to be the Spanish-language title of Schweblin’s book. “The thread that ties me to my daughter. I spend half my time calculating that distance, but I always take more risks than I should,” she sighs, one eye fixed on Nina as she runs around the edge of a swimming pool. “Why do mothers always imagine the worst that could happen?”
It’s a typical moment amidst a film that is constantly asking itself rhetorical questions, and also one that reflects how “Fever Dream” often hides its most harrowing ideas in the darkness of their unspoken answers. It makes us feel around for the ugly truth, afraid of what we might find. Perhaps mothers imagine the worst that could happen so that they can delude themselves into thinking that they can even imagine the worst that can happen. Some movies are so obviously the product of parental dread they could double as birth announcements; Llosa made this one after having her second child.
Carola doesn’t share Amanda’s concerns, because she no longer cares about her son, David. “He doesn’t belong to me anymore,” she flatly intones. Amanda says that “a child is forever,” but Carola disagrees. She reveals that her boy got sick a few years ago, and that a local mystic woman traded part of David’s spirit to another body in order to mitigate the toxins. Half of his soul has been hosting someone else ever since; a perfect stranger living inside Carola’s once-precious son. Amanda is rattled by this too-perfect metaphor for the bittersweet horror of watching one’s child become their own person — of helplessly looking on as they travel outside of the rescue distance. But then Nina falls ill, too.
“We have to go back to the garden, Amanda.” This isn’t a film that moves forward. On the contrary, the recursive “Fever Dream” is shaped like a series of concentric circles, and the script — co-written by Llosa and Schweblin herself — sifts between them like a doctor searching for the source of a deadly infection. Schweblin’s novel was structured in much the same way, only it was written as a Socratic dialogue of sorts between the all-knowing David and the dying Amanda (lying on a hospital bed as her brain starts to melt), and heavy with the dread of being interrogated by someone you can’t see.
While always slippery, Llosa’s film isn’t possessed by the same formal daring; often enigmatic but almost never confusing, it doubles back on itself with clear purpose. Perhaps too clear. With a few notable exceptions (e.g. a man’s silhouette fading into the horse he’s riding like a centaur), the images themselves are perfectly legible in a way that makes the mystery around them feel manufactured, despite how the false confidence of our understanding can also work to the advantage of a movie so preoccupied with missing the forest for the trees. Does Carola ever bother to ask herself if David’s fate might be indicative of a broader problem? You tend to know what you’re looking at even if you’re sometimes unsure as to why you’re looking at it — Oscar Faura’s dynamic, sun-in-your-eyes cinematography helpfully maintains a certain stylistic imbalance — and the movie only grows more seductive as it hones in on the big secret that will solve its central mystery while teasing you with another one twice as strong.
As Llosa proved so indelibly with “The Milk of Sorrow,” her cathartic fable about a woman who places a potato in her vagina to protest (and protect herself from) the sexual violence that terrorized Peru in the 1980s, few modern filmmakers are capable of rendering female anxieties in such visceral detail. Here, however, those anxieties tend to be overwhelmed by the details used to render them. Despite a small handful of jolts and a rising tide of ambiguous worry, Llosa’s “Fever Dream” is so hell-bent towards Amanda’s eventual understanding that it doesn’t leave any room for the sinister disquiet of its source material.
The film’s crescendoing sense of narrative momentum owes less to the surrealism of Jorge Luis Borges or the social discord of Lucrecia Martel than it does the symphonic catharsis of Christopher Nolan (complete with surging violins), or the time-collapsing epiphany that awaits at the end of Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival.” It may be structured with the amorphousness of a fever dream, but Llosa’s adaptation grips your body more like a head cold; it never causes you to leave your senses, it only uses them to instill a brief discomfort.
If the film version of “Fever Dream” doesn’t instill the same palpable degree of fear as this material has in the past, it nevertheless finds other ways to work your nerves. From the moment that Amanda first invokes the rescue distance, Llosa keeps a firm grip on the idea of a rope as something that can connect a parent to her child, but also something that can strangle them both if not given enough slack.
For all of its relative lucidity, Llosa’s “Fever Dream” burns with the madness of loving someone too much to let them go. The movie’s non-linear approach isn’t thrilling unto itself, but it speaks to how parents always look at their children refracted through the lens of who those kids used to be, even when that makes it so hard to see who they’ve become, or what’s truly threatening to kill them. And as the film sinks deeper into the waters of the very specific eco-horror that inspired it, Llosa forcefully pushes it towards the dark understanding that most parents are so focused on where their kids are going that we fail to see the dangers of where they’ve already been. We only fear what we can imagine, and sometimes our eyes just aren’t enough to see it.
“Fever Dream” premiered at the 2021 San Sebastian Film Festival. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting Wednesday, October 13.