Strawberry Mansion

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Strawberry Mansion
"Simple tricks like painting sets pink and amassing large piles of low cost everyday objects enable the filmmakers to create a distinctive fantasy landscape on a very low budget." | Photo: Tyler Davis

On average, we spend just under a third of our lives asleep. Why would a capitalist system which has gradually pushed itself further and further into every aspect of our lives leave that time alone? This is the fundamental premise of Strawberry Mansion, created on a tiny budget by outsider filmmakers Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, one of the wildest science fiction/fantasy offerings of the year.

Audley plays James Preble, a mild mannered accountant with a brown suit and small but awkwardly balanced moustache, who has been instructed to visit the titular mansion after the discovery that its primary resident, the elderly Bella (Penny Fuller), hasn’t been paying tax on her dreams. When he arrives, he finds her surprisingly welcoming, even solicitous – almost as if she knows him. Arrangements are made for him to sit in an upstairs room working through her vast dream archive and making sure that everything is recorded correctly. What he finds is not what he expected. There’s a wild, imaginative freedom to Bella’s dreams, and before he knows it he’s falling in love with her younger self (Grace Glowicki). What’s more, he begins to realise that these dreams may have been hidden for a reason. They reveal the truth about a corporate conspiracy hell bent on advertising inside people’s heads, which just might be the reason why he’s been craving unlikely things like chicken milkshakes.

Simple tricks like painting sets pink and amassing large piles of low cost everyday objects enable the filmmakers to create a distinctive fantasy landscape on a very low budget. They understand well that the key to weaving a narrative around dreams is not logical progression but consistency at a thematic level. The hapless Preble and whimsical Bella are star crossed lovers whose connection has no reliance whatsoever in physical reality. The love story isn’t there purely for its own sake: it provides natural opposition to the mercenary agenda of the bad guys, and posits that there are more important things in human existence than those needs (and imagined needs) to which capitalism is able to cater.

The sheer scale of whimsy on display here can get a bit much, and towards the end the dreamy soundtrack begins to feel suffocating, but Strawberry Mansion is nonetheless a smart, vibrantly delivered story which some viewers will head over heels in love with. Cinema of this sort is rare and the ability to make it at low cost demonstrates an imaginative capacity which almost rivals Bella’s. It’s full of quirky characters (two of them played by Birney), but the performances have a quiet sincerity about them – it never laughs at its own jokes. The CGI doesn’t need to look real because we’re not in reality, but it works like a stage set, giving the actors space within which to work their magic. The bad guys still create a convincing sense of threat, and Preble still seems vulnerable, both in the dream world and in what passes for the real one.

Puppetry and hand-drawn animation also help to bring this world to life, and the fabulous production design and heightened cinematography crowd the senses – yet the filmmakers understand that this is at its most effective when interwoven with the mundane. Whilst the satire doesn’t always hit its mark, there’s so much going on here that this doesn’t really matter. Strawberry Mansion won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, and it may leave you feeling as if you’ve just eaten far too much cake, but it deserves to be celebrated for its creativity and boldness.

Reviewed on: 18 Feb 2022
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In a world where the government records and taxes dreams, an unassuming dream auditor gets swept up in a cosmic journey through the life and dreams of an ageing eccentric named Bella. Together, they must find a way back home.

Director: Kentucker Audley, Albert Birney

Writer: Kentucker Audley, Albert Birney

Starring: Penny Fuller, Kentucker Audley, Grace Glowicki, Reed Birney, Linas Phillips, Constance Shulman

Year: 2021

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: US


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