A Fever with A Fever

Distancia de rescate (Fever Dream, Claudia Llosa, Chile, 2021)

Samanta Schweblin’s The Man Booker International Prize Shortlisted novel is bought to the screen by her own cowritten (with Llosa) script, which judging by the book review in The Guardian is faithful to the dialogue, although I wonder if there is a new ending.

Argentinian Amanda (María Valverde) has travelled to a rented holiday home in Argentina (or possibly Chile) with her daughter Nina (Guillermina Sorribes Liotta) whilst her husband is working elsewhere. She meets her neighbour, Carola (Dolores Fonzi), who tells her a horrifying story about her son, David (Marcelo Michinaux).

But that’s not quite how we encounter Amanda: first she is being dragged through the literal mud and talking with David. It seems that she is dying, and needs to tell David exactly what has happened before it is too late. It is a disturbing opening, setting up a series of interlocking flashbacks, some of which must be Amanda imagining what happened. And dust or mist blows across the wheat fields and mad dogs attack.

Some years ago, David had fallen ill and had been taken by Carola to a mysterious woman in a mysterious green house who has saved his body if not his soul. David is now not entirely David. Amanda is much taken by Carola, even to the point of apparent desire, but also suspicious of Carola’s story and her desire for a normal child. Amanda is obsessed by protecting Nina, so that you know at some point the child will be at risk — and Amanda will end up in hospital.

It is utterly gripping, and the actor playing David has the kind of physiognomy that the adjective “striking” seems designed to be appended to. You are kept guessing as to how much of Carola’s story is true and how much is a tall story, and of course all of it is a fever, er, dream. Llosa has a knack for a haunting or surreal tableau. Amanda can also narrate events which are clearly dreams.

Two caveats strike me. Amanda seems defined by motherhood, with (problematic) definition by wifehood and daughterhood. It’s not quite clear why the pilgrimage to a lake is so significant — it’s named for Luke, presumably St Luke the doctor and notable writer of a gospel. And Carola’s sophistication seems to be a red herring and the nature of her and her husband’s finances are murky, although obviously Amanda is recalling Carola’s account of events she wasn’t present at. She is a wife and mother, and appears to be failing at both.

The ending, whilst disturbing, requires another viewpoint shift, which never quite satisfies me. But then the viewpoint is somewhat wobbly throughout.

The underlying political causality should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention through most of the film; Amanda has been so concerned for her daughter that she seems blind to the risk it is already too late to avoid. Repeated footage with closer angles risk insulting. But I think I will nevertheless shudder for some time to come.

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