Doubt can fester inside a body like worms latching onto an open wound. It is like a disease that slowly keeps hanging onto your heart until it relapses and gives up. It can also be incredibly deceptive and can cater you into believing something that you can’t foresee. In Claudia Llosa’s “Fever Dream” (Distancia de rescate), doubt plays an essential role. A single line of thought is allowed into the audience’s mind and then we are put into an atmospheric mystery of catching up.
Of course, the film is always a step ahead asking the audience to “pay attention to the details.” But since these words are spoken by a kid – who is one of those misleading narrators that you simply can’t believe, what does one do?
This Netflix adaptation of Samanta Schweblin’s debut novel is steeped in an unnerving and unsettling atmosphere. One feels like the narrative would erupt any second and all the worms that are temporarily part of the dream, would find a way to reality.
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Of course, the atmospheric horror of Llosa’s movie is the highest point here because occasionally her gaze and mystery slip through, giving a meandering aura out. Duality is also at play and none is any calming as the other. However, to put it down in words, the film is about two mothers and their respective children.
Mother number 1 is introduced to us as Amanda (María Valverde) – a beautiful, young woman driving through the countryside with her daughter Nina. They are looking to reach Amanda’s secluded paternal house somewhere in Chile. But the film is always someplace or somewhere else other than being right there in the present moment. Mother number 2 is Carola (Dolores Fonzi) – a woman who feels like she is always a little scared of unknown dangers; one of which is also related to her puzzling and maladjusted boy David (Emilio Vodanovich).
The two women and their insecurities collide in Claudia Llosa’s return to indie filmmaking after a span of 7 years. Widely known for her acclaimed 2009 feature “The Milk of Sorrow” before delving into a more mainstream English-language misfire in 2014’s “Aloft.” Llosa’s newest finds her in ambitious and macabre territory once again.
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Her thematic inhibitions are off the charts with lofty elements that give her mysterious atmosphere a seemingly territorial foreshadow. This slow burn is filled with otherworldly components that, in spite of happening in real-time, feel like they are trying to trip you over. A lot of it has to do with the non-linear screenplay that cleverly shifts from one moment to another; sometimes motioning through the same sequence with a different perspective. It doesn’t just create the kind of ripple effect that Llosa is going for, but also induces the narrative with a thrilling and ominous feeling.
Coming to the film itself, a lot of it has to do with parental anxiety. The constant fear of pushing down your failures onto your children and the inability to procure a future for them is one of the main themes that Llosa is going for. Even though it’s never explicitly mentioned, her film takes place in an isolated, repressive town where women have no agency whatsoever. Her feminist gaze looks at a world where a society of men plod along with escapism and misplaced identities. The women are forced to fend for themselves. Llosa’s reasons for delving into this sort of sexual tension between the two women is more about femininity and female desire than it is about the sex itself.
That said, when the film finally reaches its crescendo, sans a puzzling and didactic hour or so, we are completely drained out in spite of being interested all along. The eco-fable metaphor comes off as a forced entity that, in spite of its potent reasoning, doesn’t completely help the film’s overall impact.
The film, however, works entirely on its ability to indulge in something sinister present off hand. The chemistry between María Valverde’s Amanda – a worrisome, and trapped mother and Carola – a smart, desperate but helpless woman, forms the crux of Fever Dream. The two actresses are completely game and the toned-down, subtle gazes are enough to put you through a multitude of emotions. Emilio Vodanovich as David is another highlight of the film. The young boy brings both a sleepy innocence and monstrous rage within him and the audience is constantly confused whether to like him or hate him.
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Oscar Faura shoots most of the film in clear, naturally lit close-ups that help enhance the overall mysticism of these characters. Guillermo de la Cal’s editing is incredible. He manages to weave the nonlinearity of the progression with such fluidity that one doesn’t need to retrace steps.
Fever Dream is a film that will keep you invested in its narrative with an unexplainable emptiness within. It’s almost like looking at a puzzle from a distance and realizing that all the elements are already there and you just weren’t looking at it closely.