Terror and beauty have been onscreen partners many times. But in Fever Dream, a film that lives up to its name, their connection is inextricable and eerie, shaped and propelled by an uncanny sense of emergency. Setting Claudia Llosa’s chilling new feature apart is how thoroughly it plants the viewer within its story’s emotional churn. And it wastes no time, plunging us straight into a disorienting sense of crisis in its opening seconds: A woman, seemingly paralyzed, describes in voiceover the feeling of something wormlike within her body as she’s dragged over brush by a young boy. Whether he’s taking her toward safety or deeper into danger, we don’t know.
Stepping back from that harrowing moment, Fever Dream is set in the summer-gilded countryside of Argentina (it was shot in northern Patagonia, Chile). The film, scheduled for global release by Netflix in October, is a psychological mystery with the trappings of a horror story, but it has more on its mind than genre scares. The source material is Distancia de Rescate, the 2014 novel by Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin that was short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize. The screenplay is a collaboration of the novelist and director Llosa, who again pursues motherhood as a subject, as she did in Aloft and her 2009 Golden Bear winner, The Milk of Sorrow, a spare allegorical drama spun around the fears a mother passes on to her daughter after enduring atrocities during Peru’s civil war.
In Fever Dream, a story of two parallel mothers whose lives become entwined, the breezes are laced with menace as one family’s holiday escape to an idyllic spot turns into an unfathomable nightmare. The book’s original Spanish title refers to the “rescue distance” required, according to one of those mothers, to keep her child safe. “I spend half my time calculating that distance,” says Amanda (María Valverde), a delicate, ethereal beauty who has brought her sweet-faced daughter, Nina (Guillermina Sorribes), about 6, from Spain to a place Amanda’s Argentine father described to her as a kind of paradise. Her husband, Marco (Guillermo Pfening), will join them when he can get away from work. A guard dog’s pounding leap at her car window is the first signal that this won’t be an ordinary getaway. A glimpse of 12-year-old David (Emilio Vodanovich), alone and watchful in a rowboat at the river’s shore, is the second.
David is the son of the other mother at the center of the story, Carola (Dolores Fonzi), whose earthy sensuality and openness contrast vividly with Amanda’s quiet composure. Through tears Carola reveals that David “doesn’t belong to me anymore.” Seeing a lone, unloved creature, Amanda becomes a kind of surrogate parent to David. Carola sees a monster to be feared, eventually provoking Amanda to berate her for not trusting her own son. For his part, David tries to steer Amanda away from his mother’s version of events and, eventually, from Carola herself. Using the horror trope of the devil child, and playing upon Vodanovich’s inscrutable performance, Llosa leaves the question of David’s intentions open-ended for much of the film.
At the same time, he’s Amanda’s guide through the calamity that ultimately grips her. Their dialogue punctuates the film’s roiling action as they try to trace recent events to a point that would explain the unfurling disaster. Whether their conversation is actual, imagined or telepathic is unclear, but their voices are part of the movie’s soundscape of dread and suspense, no less than Natalie Holt’s atonal pressure-point score and the bird cries of Fabiola Ordoyo’s sound design.
The narrative becomes one of stories within stories, memories unfolding like the petals of a lethal flower. Carola reveals how she and her husband, horse breeder Omar (Germán Palacios), lost everything. She relates how a stallion’s mysterious illness and a child’s felt like the same thing to her, and why she brought 4-year-old David (Marcelo Michinaux) to a healer (Cristina Banegas) who lives in a remote green house, reachable only by water. Here, as throughout the film, the contributions of production designer Estefanía Larraín (Ema, A Fantastic Woman, Neruda) never announce themselves but build a believable world and a haunted sense of interconnectedness, as if from the peripheries of consciousness.
This is Amanda’s fever dream, but sometimes it seems that David or Carola are dreaming it with her. The two women quickly grow close, their friendship bordering on flirtation at times. Carola, who has lived her whole life in this rural corner, declares with resentment but also pride that it’s a place where “you need a reason to be glamorous.” In her dangling earrings, colorful dresses and gold bikini, she indicates that she’s found reason enough. In Amanda she sees a pampered, well-to-do world traveler, a woman who has choices but perhaps no strong sense of belonging. Her envy goes beyond matters of class: At one intense point, Amanda finds Carola hovering over Nina as she sleeps, unable to hide how much she covets the child’s physical perfection and innocence.
The screenplay builds toward a revelation that takes the drama well beyond its handful of characters. After a few carefully planted clues in the late going, this arrives not as a bombshell, but Llosa nonetheless makes it powerful and deeply felt, with strong contributions from editor Guillermo de la Cal, shifting the film’s pulse, and cinematographer Oscar Faura, changing its scale.
Faura, who has established a knack for intimate observation and foreboding in his work with Spanish director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, A Monster Calls), expressively moves between the oppressive shadows of the story’s interiors to the textures and play of light in its natural setting. With its coda, the film might not deliver quite the intended dramatic punch, but its unsettling shifts in mood are always gripping.
In what is perhaps the movie’s strangest moment, Llosa and Faura present a striking optical illusion: A man and a horse are viewed from a certain angle, in a certain light, and the image is that of a centaur. Things are not always what they seem in Fever Dream. But as it excavates layers of the dreaming and waking worlds, it draws haunting links between the fears that might paralyze us and the warnings we’d best not ignore.