“Detail is important,” says the disembodied voice of a young boy as a woman is dragged by her feet across the floor of a damp, dingy forest. A voice that could be hers replies as the two voices pool their memories of a day something dreadful happened. “Am I screaming?” asks the woman’s voice. “Yes,” says the boy. The stage is set for what will surely be a horror film.
No, actually. Fever Dream (Distancia De Recate), Peruvian director Claudia Llosa’s San Sebastian Film Festival premiere — which debuts on Netflix in October — is full of borrowings from the horror playbook: a lonely house in the country, a sinister town full of oddballs, a witchy wise woman the locals trust more than the over-burdened country doctor, two women going stir-crazy together and, centrally and almost inevitably, a devil child. These are, however, red herrings; the Devil is not in those tricked-up details. Take another look instead at the leaf litter under the trees. Look at the wheat fields around it. What price this rural idyll?
When we cut from the forest, it is to the moment when Amanda (Maria Valverde) and her little daughter Nina (Guillermina Sorribes) are heading to their isolated cottage deep in the heartland of Argentina, a place cherished in memory by Amanda’s father. As soon as she arrives, she has a visitor: an incongruously glamorous Carola (Dolores Fonzi) carrying two pails of water. The tap water often goes off, Carola warns blithely, and becomes undrinkable. Detail, detail! “I liked her immediately,” says a voice we will come to recognize as Amanda’s.
In the original novel, an international awards-circuit success by Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin, Amanda narrates the story as a stream of consciousness. Vestiges of that stream survive here as spates of voice-over. But it is Carola’s story of how her personal darkness fell eight years earlier that is now the core of the story.
Carola’s tale, reluctantly told, begins with a horse. Her husband Omar (German Palacios) borrowed a show stallion illegally to cover his two mares. The stallion broke out of the agistment and was discovered lying on its side in the grass, almost dead. Almost incidentally, paying for the stallion ruins them financially.
The real crisis comes, however, when Carola discovers their son, bubbly four-year-old David, (Marcelo Michinaux) is also gasping for breath. Instead of taking him to hospital, where the doctor might take hours to arrive, she goes to the local healer (Cristina Banegas), who says she can save half of him with what she calls a migration of souls. Since then, Carola says, David has never been the same. “He doesn’t belong to me,” she tells Amanda bitterly. He is now 12 (and played by Emilio Vodanovich). “He’s a monster.”
Who calls their child a monster? Amanda is aghast, telling Carola that she’s the monstrous one for swallowing that mumbo-jumbo and treating her child as an alien. Aren’t mothers supposed to protect their children, ears constantly alert to the child’s slightest cry? Gradually, however, Amanda buys into these beliefs, sharing Carola’s conviction that David is tainted by malevolence. It is as if the two women were conspiring in a sort of ovarian madness, their mothering and othering of their children potentially a horror story much more potent than the cookie-cutter one we might have expected at the outset. As it is, there is just a whiff of that possibility.
And so we move towards explanation. Amanda doesn’t think twice about the crop-dusters that fly overhead. She never wonders why the town’s children all seem so misshapen. By the time we come to wonder at these things ourselves, they have none of the righteous impact they should. After the barrage of magical thinking and distracting bumps in the night — the kind that turn out to be David climbing in through the window, but seemed supernatural — we’re mostly disagreeably baffled.
There is plenty to admire here. Llosa’s direction is never less than stylish. The two women ground the story, against all the odds. The production is handsome and the scenery a great advertisement for Argentina’s wide open spaces, which goes to show how little the environmental message about the destruction of those spaces has registered. Fever Dream is not exactly a misfire; it’s more of a damp squib.
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