Fever Dream from the novel by Samantha Schweblin is just that. It is a fevered hallucinogenic dream so heavy with melancholy and metaphors it is almost stifling if not for the gorgeous music by Natalie Holt, who scored both Paddington and Loki. It is a layered, complicated film that has multiple meanings depending on your perspective. Themes of motherhood, ecological disasters, and death are woven in a tapestry of regret and desperation.
The film opens with a boy whispering in a woman’s ear. She is lying in a wooded area and is in distress. The boy is guiding her to remember things before it is too late. He leads her through her memories, searching for the answers to her current situation and the location of Nina. What is real? What is imagined and who can be trusted are all in play.
In Fever Dream, Amanda and her young daughter, Nina, have traveled from the city to a country house in the middle of flowing wheat fields. Her husband has stayed in the city and says he will be joining them later, but through flashbacks and conversations, it is obvious he is more absentee than father and husband. Shortly after arriving, she meets gorgeous Carola and her strange son David. Everything unravels as Amanda and Carola strike up a friendship, and Carola shares her fears and unhappiness with Amanda. The more she knows, the less she feels she understands. Here is everything you need to know about the trippy ending and what it all means.
Fever Dream as a straightforward ecological allegory
If you take Fever Dream as strictly factual, it is about the destruction of nature and its effects on humans that fail to take action. Humanity destroying nature in the name of progress is a common theme in eco-horror. In this case, everything that happens can be taken as the last gasps of a poisoned mind. Amanda imagines David speaking to her as a way to make sense of what has happened to her and Nina. Amanda warns her early the water is suspect, and we learn Amanda’s horse died after drinking contaminated water. That same incident also sickened David, who she says has not been the same sense. The town is doused in pesticides daily. The dew that Amanda sees covering the grass, fields, and her car, is overspray from the planes and sprayers.
In this reading of the story, everything about child deformities and sick kids is true. The town is a natural disaster left to its own devices with no resources and even fewer options. Amanda and Nina were poisoned by walking through the fields unprotected and drinking the contaminated water. The town is slowly dying, and everyone who comes to the dead-end place will more than likely never leave. Carola says as much when talking about her life with her husband, Omar. Carola, in this reading, represents chemicals and danger. She warns Amanda about the poison but brings her buckets of water. There is no proof she has brought clean water, and she does encourage her friend to lay down in the wheat field. She also currently works at the farm that distributes the pesticide.
From this perspective, Fever Dream is a cautionary tale about pollution. The inability of parents to act now directly impacts the health of our world in the future. Although Amanda is focused on what happened to her, David wants her to see the bigger picture. He needs her to understand the poisoning of the town didn’t just kill her. It affects everyone, and until Amanda, a stand-in for all of humanity, understands the individual is only as important as the whole(Earth), we are doomed to leave future generations our toxins.
The epilogue with David, Omar, and Marco is Amanda’s soul seeking sense in tragedy. Amanda tells her as much when she remembers a conversation where she tells her humans seek to make stories out of everything. There is no meaning to Amanda’s death other than it is a tragedy that could have been avoided if the ground wasn’t saturated in chemicals daily. It is also very possible Nina died as a result of the poisoning as well. All of the supernatural soul swapping is just nightmare fuel.
The Green House and the spiritual healer, in this case, are nature. By healing the ecology of the town, the people that live there would also be healthier. The house is called the Green House because green is often the color most directly representative of nature. It represents the balance we must strike between changing the Earth with our machines and food while still caring for the environment.
As a metaphor for motherhood
Fever Dream as a fable for the stress and trial of motherhood is equally strong. Amanda constantly worries about her daughter’s safety. She explains to Carola that for her, she calculates the rescue distance every moment. For her, motherhood is something she loves, but she is burdened by it. It fills her with anxiety and doubt, and she feels dissatisfied with her husband, who is neglectful and unconcerned.
Carola, in this reading, is Amanda’s guilt, unfulfilled dreams, and aspirations. That is why the other woman has wild curly hair, is overtly sexual, and seems to reject her own child so cruelly. Most mothers feel overwhelmed at some point in their lives. Having children is as rewarding as it is stressful. We feel guilty for pursuing our dream outside of the home and long to have an identity independent of motherhood.
Mothers have all made decisions we regret. We’ve all left a child in a playpen to use the restroom, and they stuffed something up their nose or mouth. How many children have drowned when they accidentally fell into pools? Older children’s small toys are choking hazards we have to be hyper-vigilant of. It’s nearly impossible to keep our children safe every moment of every day for their entire lives. Once they leave the house for school, the threats become even more extensive. Amanda feels intense guilt for Nina’s sickness and blames herself for what is happening.
Carola is Amanda’s guilt. Carola initially dotes on David, but she begins to believe he wasn’t her child any longer after he almost died. Her instability began years before, however. Postpartum affects every woman differently, and for Carola, it made her paranoid. She becomes so obsessed with the idea her child has missing fingers that she recounts them repeatedly. Finally, when David was poisoned by the water that killed the horse, she took him to the Green House out of desperation. She felt guilty she couldn’t do more to save him.
Amanda’s memories of Carola in Fever Dream frequently are psycho-sexual in tone. She lingers on her hair and lips, and the two women share a bond that seems odd considering the short time involved and the bizarre story Carola tells Amanda about David. This is why Amanda puts on the red lipstick. It is her sexual desire to be loved and wanted. Carola is a sexy woman who intrigues and scares Amanda. She is both horrified and captivated by Carola’s behavior toward her son.
Amanda considers herself a good mother and would struggle to be close to a woman who has rejected and neglected her child. That being said, she longs to be free of her life. She doesn’t want to be in a loveless marriage, and Carola represents her dreams. Carola talks about leaving if not for her responsibility to David.
The woman in the Green House told her she had to care for him forever in exchange for the soul mutation. All good parents feel the responsibility to love and worry about their children forever. Soul mutation should not be necessary to convince someone of their parental duty. When Carola brought Nina to the Green House, she hoped to implant the other part of David’s soul in Nina’s body. Carola coveted Nina, and her delusion led her to believe she could get David back by trying the spell again. If the epilogue can be trusted, shortly after the spell, Carola left town without her child or Nina.
Knowing what we do about Carola, this seems highly unlikely. If she genuinely believed part of David’s soul was now in Nina and vice versa, she would have done everything to stay with him. But, instead, she acts as if her child is gone, and thus, she is absolved of her motherly duty. Through this perspective, Carola really tried to help Nina and did not intend to steal the child.
The Green House is the magic and wonder of life tainted by science. David’s illness corrupted the purity of the parent/child bond, and she took him to the healer to restore some of that intangible bond. This is why the soul mutation can’t save all the child, only half. Carola instinctively knows nothing will ever be the same, and so she chooses to believe that the spell changed her son, not the poison or her own abuse in the years since. David is undoubtedly an odd child, but he doesn’t appear to be dangerous in any way. Given his current circumstances, any child would become a shell of themselves if their mother acted so cruelly towards them.
The Green House represents the love and hope of children. When David and later Nina were “saved” by the healer, they supposedly lost half of their former soul. When a child becomes injured or deathly ill, it changes a parent. They no longer only see the wonderous possibility of their child but also the crippling fear of their maturity and unavoidable death someday. Children grow up, they change, and for some parents, this isn’t palatable. For Carola, she becomes consumed by the idea David is only partially her own now. She rejects all of him instead of learning to love the boy he has become. The Green House is a chance to turn back the clock and freeze childhood.
The end scene and who is dead
Amanda is dead. Carola, David, Marco, and Omar are all alive. The final scene, which acts as an epilogue of sorts, indicates part of Nina’s soul is now in David, although we do not see Nina. Marco travels back to the same town where Amanda died one year prior and spoke to Omar. Omar says Carola left him and David. Both men say their children are not the same. Husbands and fathers are not treated well in Fever Dream, and both of these men seem reluctant to change. Considering Marco was not a doting father before Amanda’s death, it is odd he now thinks Nina is different. If Amanda can be believed, he barely knew the child. The same is true of Omar, who was always busy with his horses and now appears to be doing the bare minimum.
After David tries to take Amanda to the Green House and fails to arrive before her death, he returns home with Carola and Omar, but the final shot wants us to believe he now has half of Nina’s soul. This is why he ran to Marco’s car and sat with his legs crossed, holding Nina’s stuffed animal. Since this is the only sequence that is not a memory or hallucination of Amanda’s, there is no reference for what actually happened. Nina could have died from the poisoning.
On the other hand, Carola may still be living with David and Omar. We don’t know, but Amanda wants to believe some part of her child lived even if it meant Nina was living in another child’s body with other parents. If the scene is one last fever dream of Amanda’s, it is a grim one. If the scene is an invention of David, who has acted as a spirit guide of sorts for Amanda, it is an uncomfortable mix of hope and dread. Hope that her child lived but dread that she has such an unhappy life. It is the struggle of parenthood in a nutshell.
Fever Dream is a heartbreaking surreal trip to a place no parent wants to go. Director Claudia Llosa delivers a powerful adaptation that is inscrutable and ambiguous. The beautifully shot film is as dreamy as the images that grace the sun-dappled screen. Life, love, and hope are magic that is hampered by corruption, neglect, and ignorance. Yet, like the haunting The Wanting Mare, there is meaning in every word. It just depends on your point of view and desire to see the positive or negative. Fever Dream is on Netflix right now.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.