“Fever Dream” is a movie you come out of feeling weaker. You have to sense yourself under you, step deliberately, feel what’s in your arms and legs again. A word keeps repeating in my head: ‘hollowing’. “Fever Dream” hollows you. That’s not a bad thing. It’s simply patient with its urgency, lyrical in its revelations. It cradles you so you can begin to understand its staggering scale of pain.
Amanda is being dragged through the woods. She can’t move. Except that’s not right. She’s moving into her new home in Argentina. She moves with her daughter Nina on a regular basis. Her husband’s job requires it. She meets the neighbor, Carola, who brings over water because sometimes what comes out of the tap isn’t safe to drink. The two are immediate friends. Except it’s later, and Carola is confessing to Amanda a sacrifice she felt she had to make, something she fears will alienate Amanda.
“Fever Dream” is told like one, a foggy web of growing connections as it evolves. Stories are housed within stories are housed within stories. This is a magical realism tradition, an element of Latine storytelling that treats time as less important than understanding. It becomes easier to understand what’s happened, even when it’s very unclear what is or isn’t real, because we know so much by then about what it all means. As “Fever Dream” keeps reminding us, these larger moments aren’t what’s important. It’s the details that are crucial, the causes and consequences, the oversights, the inevitabilities.
The film’s based on Samanta Schweblin’s novel “Distancia de rescate”. That translates to “Rescue Distance”. It’s the sense a person has of how close they’d have to be to someone to rescue them. How far can Amanda go from the pool, and still be able to make it back in time if Nina falls in?
Director and co-writer Claudia Llosa always has a light touch with metaphor. She’s more focused on the emotional experience of the people inside those metaphors, what they see from inside them, the details they miss because they’re too busy living in them. There’s a power in this that so many directors overlook.
It’s easy to see the rescue distance also talks about communities suffering through environmental abuses, but the only reason it’s easy to see is because we’re living in that metaphor, too. We either live in the communities that are falling in quickly, the ones being poisoned or flooded or sold out from under the people who live there, or we live in the ones that have stretched the rescue distance to its breaking point, that have gone too far away to make it back in time.
“Fever Dream” never has to say it. It never even has to think it. It just has to give time to witness the people who live in and ignore the same metaphor we live in and ignore. Its horror is quiet because we’ve taught ourselves to understand it quietly.
To be blunt, when I started writing this review, I began with “There are no words”. There aren’t. It’s like trying to describe all the sensations you have in real-time. Any attempt is incomplete. To understand meaningfully, you’d have to feel it the same way.
This whole review could just be descriptions of how my body felt as I watched. It’s why it starts with how I felt as I got up after and still: hollowed. Like you could echo through me.
There’s a quiet in “Fever Dream” I recognize from being alone in the woods, when I let myself stop thinking for a moment, and I’m able to feel the wind and hear the sounds around me without intrusion or distraction.
There’s also a horror in “Fever Dream” I recognize from when I’ve worked and worked and called and asked for help and done everything I can to try to change something devastating, and still it barrels forth.
It bled tears from me, not in any overpowering moment, but in the gentleness with which it slowly, softly overwhelms, outlines what was always going to happen, because we let it happen all the time. Those tears haven’t stopped, not even as I write this. I’ll have to step away when this is done, distract myself, remember what ignoring devastation in the world feels like, the lifetime of lessons that have taught me how. We should feel hollow. We should be crying all the time. This is what I mean when I say “Fever Dream” cradles you so you can begin to understand its staggering scale of pain.
I’ve always been a fan of cosmic horror. Problematic though its roots are, the sense that there is something larger, mysterious, so unknowable it can make any human go mad at its scope…it’s thrilling when we know it’s pretend. The idea enraptures us.
The horror in “Fever Dream” is also of a scale that may be quantifiable, but that to any single person is so immense as to be unknowable, is so staggering in its scope it would make anyone who tried to grasp it in its entirety feel hollowed, lost. This idea…it doesn’t enrapture us.
I could tell you “Fever Dream” is a stunning piece of magical realism. I could tell you its story involves psychological horror, parable, even contemplative eroticism. I could tell you it intersects with motherhood, colonialism, environmental racism. The mix of layers Llosa and Schweblin find in a story that unanchors itself from reality and time, without ever losing the details of what happens and why, is astounding. The performances given by Maria Valverde and Dolores Fonzi are starkly, vulnerably human.
But what I want to tell you is that it hollows you. It gently undoes reality to remind us of the details that are important, that we overlook, that we make inevitable by the eye we turn away. It reminds us of the thread of rescue distance that we’ve snapped, and how it doesn’t come back. “Fever Dream” clarifies what so much magical realism does: that what makes its quiet, inevitable horror work so well is that we practice it every day, we quiet its presence every day, we treat it as inevitable every day.
This is a phenomenal week for surprises. It includes a new psychological horror from one of the best directors out there, Claudia Llosa. It also features one of the best reviewed horror movies of the year, the latest in a recent surge of Welsh suspense. Nineties franchise “I Know What You Did Last Summer” gets re-adapted as a series. To top it all off, Kate Beckinsale goes against type in an ego-driven dark comedy. This is where we’ll start:
Guilty Party (Paramount+) showrunner Rebecca Addelman
Kate Beckinsale stars as Beth, a discredited journalist. She tries to relaunch her career by ingratiating herself with a mother sentenced to life for murdering her husband. Beth is determined to prove herself relevant again- er, to prove the woman innocent.
Showrunner Rebecca Addelman has written and produced on “Dead to Me” and “Ghosted”.
You can watch “Guilty Party” on Paramount+, with new episodes premiering weekly.
I Know What You Did Last Summer (Amazon) showrunner Sara Goodman
“I Know What You Did Last Summer” is a new adaptation of the Lois Duncan novel. It also saw a popular 1997 film adaptation. Five teens hit someone with their car on the night of their graduation. They hide the body. A year later, someone starts killing them one by one.
This is the first series showrun by Sara Goodman.
You can watch “I know What You Did Last Summer” on Amazon.
Build Divide #000000 Code Black (Crunchyroll) directed by Komada Yuki
I really appreciate Japanese titling. From “Reborn as a Vending Machine, I Now Wander the Dungeon” to “Bofuri: I Don’t Want to Get Hurt, so I’ll Max Out My Defense”, and even “Melty Blood Actress Again Current Code”, they’re just so much braver than our surfeit of boring, old 1-3 word titles.
Anyway, in “Build Divide #000000 Code Black”, players in a trading card game attempt to defeat the king of Neo Kyoto. If they do, their wishes will be granted. (#000000 is the hex code in a spreadsheet for black, if you’re wondering what the connection is. I’m…still not sure that clarifies anything.)
Komada Yuki previously assistant directed “Mugen no Juunin: Immortal”.
“Build Divide #000000 Code Black” is simulcast as it airs in Japan, with new episodes every week. You can watch it on Crunchyroll.
Fever Dream (Netflix) directed by Claudia Llosa
“Fever Dream” is an adaptation of Samanta Schweblin’s 2014 novel of the same name. It tells a surreal tale of horror inspired by environmental abuses in Argentina.
I named writer-director Claudia Llosa’s “The Milk of Sorrow” my best film of the 2010s. She is a brilliant visualist and patient storyteller. You could say her sense of empathy has infused her movies with elements of cultural horror (about misogyny and colonialism), but this looks like her first crack at a film that’s housed in the horror genre. The crew she’s gathered is a stunning group, including “Loki” composer Natalie Holt, “The Orphanage” cinematographer Oscar Faura, and “A Fantastic Woman” production designer Estefania Larrain.
Enid is a film censor. She’s strict, with a specialty for censoring moments of violence. When she’s tasked with reviewing a particular film, its details spur childhood memories about her sister’s unsolved disappearance. Enid sets to work investigating the film’s origins, even as fiction and reality increasingly blur.
This is the first feature from director and co-writer Prano Bailey-Bond. It also marks another well-reviewed Welsh horror entry centered on family bringing to light generations-old wrongs. Welsh horror is carving an extremely unique voice with independent-styled films that focus on characters who convey different realities based on privilege. These horror metaphors tend to center on gaslighting, often of women and often in relation to long-disappeared or dead family members.
I can’t help but notice the popularity of this theme, and wonder how much it might connect to a history of English abuses and cover-ups such as the culturally defining Aberfan disaster.
I featured “Censor” when you could rent it, but this is the first time it’s been on a streaming service. “Censor” now also appears on Hulu.
The Blazing World (VOD) directed by Carlson Young
In this fairy tale horror, a woman returns to her childhood home. She’s stayed away since the accidental drowning of her twin sister. Yet as she returns, she finds access to an alternate world where her sister may survive. She’ll have to convince three demons to release her sister back into this world.
This is the first feature for director and co-writer Carlson Young.
I started discussing awards where the glass ceiling is still very much intact one of last month’s New Shows + Movies by Women. One of these is cinematography, where only one woman has been nominated by the Oscars. That’s only one nomination since the award was first given out in 1929.
That nomination went to Rachel Morrison for “Mudbound” in 2017. It was well deserved for a beautiful looking film. Morrison’s also been cinematographer for “Black Panther”, “Dope”, and “Fruitvale Station”.
It’s one thing to say more women have deserved this or that award. That’s obviously a true statement, but it fails to highlight the specific people who deserve it. So let’s do that, starting with my favorite cinematographer: Natasha Braier.
Argentinian cinematographer Natasha Braier is as dynamic as I can name. She filmed “The Milk of Sorrow”, a painterly Peruvian film that was my choice for Best Film of the 2010s. She shot “The Neon Demon”, a film that might best be described as sumptuous toxicity. She filmed “The Rover”, an Australian movie that treats the apocalypse as a banal descent into violence where only systems survive.
She has a rare eye for those scenes when a private moment for a protagonist meets the gaze of those who will never recognize how crucial it is. That private moment becomes something held between the character and audience. She highlights raw performance as a moment to find what’s common between actor and viewer, to hide both in that space even as the world around it continues in a clinical, procedural way. She makes scenes into air bubbles, the only place character and viewer alike can breathe. She does this in wildly different ways, across an incredible range.
The Milk of Sorrow
The opening two shots of “The Milk of Sorrow” might be my favorite in cinema.
We hear singing over a black screen for the first minute. When we finally see someone, it’s an elderly woman in bed. The age lines are highlighted on her face as she rests on a faded, floral-print pillow. The edge of it is worn, the seam folded near coming apart. The paint on the headboard behind her is webbed with cracks. It rests against a faded, floral-print wallpaper. As the camera ever so slightly tilts up, the edge of the wallpaper gives way to blank wall, the seam coming apart
This woman sings about the trauma she sustained in civil war – her rape and the loss of her husband. She pauses for just a moment, long enough for us to worry about whether she’s still alive. It’s just enough time for a second voice to join. It’s that of her daughter, Fausta. The timing of Fausta’s voice suggests that it’s the daughter’s devotion keeping her mother alive. It’s enough to re-spark the mother’s song again.
We cut to the second shot. We see the open window of the bedroom, the town beyond, a hill beyond that, the mountains further, a corner of sky. The empty space in the upper right is reflected here as well. The camera slowly dollies in, as if the universe knows what’s about to happen before Fausta does. She crosses from her mother’s side of the bed to the window side, singing as she does. She prompts her mother again: just Fausta, the window frame, and the town beyond in shot now.
The story of “The Milk of Sorrow” involves Fausta taking work in order to pay for her mother’s funeral, having done something medically horrible to herself out of fear of her mother’s songs, and having her art stolen through colonialism that still oppresses the indigenous population of Peru.
“The Milk of Sorrow” examines how trauma echoes itself into new generations. Everything in the first shot, that fractal repeat of age to flowers worn at the edge – serves as a metaphor for where the film delves.
Fausta’s crossing from her mother’s side to the open window, a life she’s been sheltered from waiting with all the fear that’s been drilled into her, tells us about her character and describes the story we’re about to witness.
Everything in “The Milk of Sorrow” is like this – thick with description and a quickly established visual metaphor that increasingly veers into magical realism. The experience of watching a film so thick with detail evokes reading a novel.
Obviously, this isn’t all a result of Braier’s cinematography. It owes to writer-director Claudia Llosa first and foremost. It owes to art directors Patricia Bueno and Susana Torres. It owes to Magaly Solier, one of the most overlooked actors working today.
Yet there’s an eye that brings it all together, that captures the edges that need to be caught, the corners that need to be seen encroaching, the natural light that gives it all context. That slow dolly as dramatic irony, telling us of the mother’s death right before Fausta realizes, immediately describes an authorial tone. “The Milk of Sorrow” wants us to know we’re being told a story, not pretending to “witness” one. In doing so, we’re not part of Fausta’s story, and we’re asked not to pretend as if we are. We’re part of that world outside. We’re that horror in layers, taught by story and song, waiting alongside the author for Fausta to realize what we already suspect.
Throughout “The Milk of Sorrow”, Braier’s camera makes us part of that outside world even as it lets us into Fausta’s guarded inner world. It makes us question what parts of our culture justify Fausta’s fears and colonize Fausta’s world.
The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” is a completely different experience, a giallo/commentary about an underaged model who becomes the sexual target of seemingly everyone in the industry. Its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival simultaneously received a chorus of boos and a standing ovation. Based on the history of the festival, it’s fair to wonder if the boos were because they thought it was a bad film or because they felt specifically called out.
It’s a film that takes pains to be consciously obvious with its style, and in so doing achieves a dreamlike state where timing feels off. Dialogue can feel noncommital, characters often talk past each other to no one in particular. Environments are either frozen in time or so overtly slick they become wildly off-putting.
Much of this giallo-style is due to the Italian filmmaking that first propelled the genre in the 1960s and 70s. Actors often came from various European countries – this resulted in many reading lines in languages they didn’t know (the most famous example of this is Dario Argento’s 1977 film “Suspiria”.) They often didn’t know precisely what they were saying or what was being said to them. A dialogue could feel like two people awkwardly giving each other space for their intersecting monologues. Art design and gruesome set pieces were prized above dialogue scenes, complex sets needed to be filmed from certain angles creating a stagy feel, different countries censored a variety of scenes from many giallos, and dubbing in that era was often cheap and unfeeling.
The genre started off interested in unsettling atmospheres and surreal expressions of violence – all these technical issues only served to make the experience of watching them even more dreamlike. That’s what a modern giallo like “The Neon Demon” pursues with elements of deliberate line-reading, over-pronunciations, over-repeated reaction angles, intentionally disruptive visual and audio interludes, and editing that can sometimes feel like a scene has been prematurely cut. We often see a dialogue scene evolve through shot choice to bring us closer or further from the characters across a scene. “The Neon Demon” and giallo as a whole undermines many of those typical comforts. If actors don’t take that last step on making a character feel natural, if we don’t get the in-scene shot and editing evolution we expect, then we’re left with something we as viewers need to start defining or trying to place context onto. That can vary by viewer and that involvement in trying to define the surreal, organize the disconnected, and make what’s unnatural feel natural is what gives us that out-of-place, dreamlike feel.
That can offer the misconception that giallo is then easy to accomplish – just do a slightly bad job at everything. Yet it takes very conscious choices and technical coordination to create this off-putting environment in a way where what’s unsettling is consistent for two hours at a time. Everyone needs to be contributing to what feels unreal in the same way.
Refn is famed for his visual sensibilities and experimental storytelling, while also being justifiably criticized for prioritizing those visuals over any real storytelling. I find Refn’s ego and taste dominate his films and often obscure their points. “The Neon Demon” can walk a line where you’re not completely sure if it’s criticizing certain things or taking part in them.
It obviously calls out a largely male-run modeling industry’s targeting of underage models. Elle Fanning (17 at the time it was shot, playing a 16 year-old) essentially plays prey, a target moving through the film who everyone else is relentlessly focused on.
There are moments where it pointedly highlights the portrayal of dead women in high fashion as selling a social fantasy about the murder of women. If fashion photography idealizes the portrayal of women as gaunt, starving, unhealthy, and suffering violence, all without commentary, then fashion photography communicates this as a desirable norm. Refn makes this the other part of his target, ostensibly in a film about violence toward women.
This gets us into the territory any modern giallo like this faces – in a genre that’s historically relied on plots about violence aimed at women, how do you present a modern version? It’s crucial that Braier is the cinematographer here. This would have been a mess with a male cinematographer sexualizing the moments where Fanning is perused and assessed by others. Instead of observing those making the assessments, we would have been observing her, taking part in what the film seeks to criticize in the first place.
Giallos have often been a place where technical crew are highlighted – art directors, costume designers, choreographers, cinematographers. When some elements are made to feel underbaked or over-deliberate, it puts the onus on other elements to succeed at taking huge risks. In “The Neon Demon”, Braier presents a stunning, giallo-esque film world without losing track of women’s perspectives in it.
“The Neon Demon” becomes less about the violence itself – a place where Refn is happy to get lost and treat as thrilling in many of his other films. Uniquely in his repertoire, it becomes a reflection of what it’s like to fear that violence, to recognize the impending nature of it and progressively lose yourself either in legitimate, constant fear of it or by normalizing its presence in order to cope. Ultimately, the world of “The Neon Demon” is one where many of the women learn to normalize the presence of that violence, to redirect it at others in order to preserve themselves, and in so doing to enable it or even take part in it as the cost of having a successful career.
CW for following scene: off-screen sexual assault
The most unforgettable moment in “The Neon Demon” involves Fanning’s Jesse narrowly dodging a sexual assault simply because she gets to her deadbolt in time. She then overhears the man – a co-worker – choose the neighboring room instead. She overhears his assault of the 13 year-old staying there. That pan across the mirror is haunting because of what it says about Jesse’s experience being reflected back at her. Her silhouette listens at the wall, growing distant, fading at the experience. There’s something rarely captured about the feeling of trauma in this moment, and Braier’s work thankfully keeps it close to Jesse’s perspective.
Braier creates a darkly-lit, off-kilter giallo environment – an environment that’s often been predicated on and defined within the genre by the sexualization of violence toward women. She’s able to visually remove precise elements from that for criticism, while shifting the perspective away from the sexualization of violence to a fear of both that violence and the normalization of it. If this were easy, it wouldn’t be such a major component of giallo to begin with. If this was purely due to Refn’s work, then he wouldn’t be Refn to start with. He obviously does a ton of work on making the movie what it is, but it’s Braier doing the heavy lifting on the film’s perspective and how the film is coded.
It’s important to note that “The Neon Demon” is Refn’s 10th feature, but just the first one on which he’s worked with a woman as cinematographer. I don’t think there was another option if he wanted to do this remotely right, and that speaks to just how much Braier had a hand in shaping the film.
“The Neon Demon” is still controversial, because it participates in much of what it’s criticizing in order to make that criticism. There’s a tightrope to walk – don’t make it all the way, and elements that are meant to critique misogyny risk simply presenting it. “The Neon Demon” goes pretty far in making that critique, but whether it lands that last, most important step is a legitimate debate.
Finally, you have Australian slow apocalypse film “The Rover”. As the world falls into disrepair and depression, a gang of thieves run their truck aground. It belongs to Guy Pearce’s Eric. He’s obsessed with getting it back. He chances into one of the thieves’ brothers – Robert Pattinson’s Rey. The younger man gradually becomes worshipful of Eric’s misanthropic attitude and violence. He idealizes Eric, even as Eric has nothing in particular to live for past getting his car back.
It’s a short story premise writ long in curt but meaningful conversations, in memories of a world that will never return, and in finding granular purpose when you know what you do no longer matters. It’s written and directed by David Michod. Its cut-out-the-heart prose is directed beautifully, and Pearce and Pattinson both gave Oscar-worthy performances in it.
It’s Natasha Braier who paints its diminishing world. She films Eric like he’s moments from becoming part of it, in sharp contrast to Rey’s verve, fright, eagerness, everything felt as much as possible. Pearce plays Eric as all but gone, Pattinson plays Rey as desperately wanting to mold himself after anyone, and Braier films each speaking to the other across an achingly large divide in a dying world. The only time Eric is lit more brightly than Rey is when Rey looks at him, engages him, sees this dangerous shell of a man as an icon. These are the first 11 minutes of the film.
Every exterior is too much light, washed out, dusty. Every interior is dim, shadowed, worn. Every time we see the outdoor world through a window, violence descends. It’s a film about men murdering the hope within themselves, within each other, and Braier knows how the world looks at them – as acts of violence that never see accountability, that when recognized are idolized. Her slow apocalypse doesn’t look that different from now when it’s just more of the same.
The visuals of “The Rover” might get dismissed as being dusty and dreary, but it’s the most practical and realistic presentation of an apocalypse I’ve seen. Michod’s screenplay sees systems survive even if humanity doesn’t, our trying to keep hierarchy and order over caring for others. It sees humanity in everything but people. Braier matches that. Where she presents fear, colonization, authorial presence in “The Milk of Sorrow”, where she connects on wild visuals and perspective-switching re-codifying of a genre in “The Neon Demon”, here her cinematography is patient, still, systematic, documentarian without playing at verite.
In just these three films, she is three completely different cinematographers, three completely different creative voices working within genres as opposite as could be. She gives voice to three extremely different directors by developing separate visual codes for each.
Natasha Braier also shot “Honey Boy”, “Gloria Bell”, “XXY”, and a number of other films. She’s shot music videos for FKA Twigs, Rihanna, The Weeknd, David Byrne & St. Vincent.
She deserves Oscars. She deserves the analysis and discussion that moves film ahead, and if we fail to recognize and listen to women when we move art ahead, then we’re not really moving it much of anywhere. I don’t want to highlight her as a woman cinematographer, I want to highlight her as one of the best and most overlooked cinematographers, period – but the reality is that she isn’t valued as much and we don’t get to see everything she can do because women cinematographers aren’t celebrated, recognized, sought out.