Official Synopsis: : 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 older eccentric.
It has been a long time since I included the official synopsis in a review, I used to do it a lot as a way to avoid my own tendency to lean on synopsis rather than develop my own voice and criticism. By simply starting with the description I was left, and at times forced, to develop my feelings on how the movie made me feel, the craft involved, and the ideas either directly or indirectly addressed. However, I had to bring back the practice for this review because Strawberry Mansion is that rare film whose wild and intriguing synopsis, and don’t tell me that doesn’t sound at minimum interesting, does not come close to the levels of strange the movie itself contains. The film plays like a journey of discovery, in which a man whose primary purpose is to serve the system slowly gets drawn into a world of wonder and possibility through dreams. However, the film manages to take the narrative, which could be wildly personal, and make it immediately political (in the sense of power, not of partisan specifics). The dreams which act as the catalyst of our protagonists discovery are themselves commodified and devalued, or rather made into value for the state in the form of taxes. As the film progresses we learn they are also the territory in which corporations are seeking to use advertising to social condition us, and these conglomerates seek to take away anything that might make us uniquely human. Strawberry Mansion is whimsical, and goofy, and at times deeply disturbing, and yet all of this follows a story of both personal and social liberation in a context of capitalistic exploitation.
Strawberry Manion, which before any Philly people ask, has nothing to do with the neighborhood of the same name, was co-written and co-directed by Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, with Audley also playing James Preble, our dream auditor who begins a journey with an aging woman who has simply not been paying her dream taxes. The film opens with our first dream sequence as we see Preble’s dream and I think the major themes of the film are at least hinted at. One there is a sense of whimsy but also menace to this dream, as we sense the ways that Preble’s dream is functioning as a kind of advertisement. Then he awakens and immediately registers the documentation of his dream so that he can pay the proper tax on what he has dreamt. I cannot remember a film that so immediately filled me with both a sense of wonder and forboding. The wonder comes from the ways the film creates a sense of reality being bent and transformed with interesting and creative low budget techniques. The dread comes of course from being put into a world where even into our dream space, a theoretical “location” one might assume would maintain some kind of autonomy within any system has been basically colonized. This sense of both whimsy and fear continues as Preble meets Arabella “Bella” Isadora (Penny Fuller) at a remote farm house. Bella has been storing her dreams not on the required thumb drive (How DARE she) but on antiquated VHS tapes which now Preble must spend inordinate amounts of time reviewing and cataloging. Yet it is in this space, in the analog records of that which is unknowable, that is the dreams of another, that James Preble find the secret that could save or destroy him.
The film rests truly on two characters played by three people. Yes, our co-writer and director Kentucker Audler is excellent as Preble, though his character functions most of the film as the foil to the eccentricity and strangeness he encounters. He is stellar in this understated role, and when the film asks more of him he is able to deliver. However, for me, it is the two ways we get to know Bella, both her older eccentric self and her younger dream/reality self that the film really works. It is no surprise that Penny Fuller is excellent, she is a veteran from films like All The President’s Men as well as extensive TV work. I have always found her charming when I caught her in things, and here she is perfectly charming and mysterious. She brings the correct balance of perhaps a bit strange but also a bit wise to confound the audience as long as she needs to. It was Grace Glowicki who plays the young Bella we meet in the dream space who was a total surprise to me. She is great, and really sells a role that alternates between the avatar of a person to the fully realized person, and she sells this entirely. This praise is not meant to downplay the lovely surprise of seeing familiar faces like Reed Birney and Constance Shulman in this, who are both awesome, but truly the alchemy of the film is the trio of Audler, Fuller, and Glowicki.
The look of Strawberry Mansion is entirely unique and interesting, from the set and art design, costuming, and of course the dream effects. Even the way it was filmed offers a unique look, as it was filmed digitally and then transferred to 16mm. This gives the film an otherworldly effect that adds to the dream logic of the proceedings. Because much of the joy of the film is discovering the fun and strange ways that the dream space is fleshed out I will not spend any time describing those moments. I do not want to take away the joy of discovery I felt and the sense of clever creativity I felt from the production. I will say that the visuals are not just witty but they also work incredibly well to forward the themes and narrative of the film. There is a moment that may be a bit much for some viewers sense of disbelief, as a bit of narrative drama is drawn out between eons of dream time and mere moments in the real world, but this worked very well for me.
I want to say so much more about this film, specifically the political implications of the context and story. I think the film is seeking to tell one kind of narrative, and then through the context of advertising and capitalism invading the most personal space of all, our dreams, huge spaces of discourse are opened up. We could have an incredible conversation from this movie about the ways that the culture of modern capitalism seeks to limit our imaginative possibilities, and the ways that corporations literally colonizing our minds works as a metaphor for that. However, in order to dive too deeply we would need to spoil the film for some viewers who are more sensitive to those kinds of revelations. I do not want to do this to anyone because, regardless of both the thematic possibilities or the creative beauty of their presentation, more than anything Strawberry Mansion was a joyful experience to watch. I think for some viewers there may be pacing issues, the film goes at its own speed and if you are someone for whom dramatic action is paramount you might feel a small drag. For me I was swept away by the marriage of whimsy and dread, and seduced by the direction and performances that weave this film together. It is a strange ride, but entirely worth it.