Writers and Directors: Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley
Strawberry Mansion, written and directed by Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley (and starring the latter) walks the fine line between profundity and whimsy.
In the year 2035 the government raises revenue by imposing a tax on dreams. Tax auditor James Preble (Audley) suffers from disturbing dreams in which his problems are resolved by ebullient Buddy (Linas Phillips) arriving with a bucket of fast food. Preble undertakes a tax audit of Arabella “Bella” Isadora (Penny Fuller) who has not updated her dream recording methods to the prescribed modern format and so could be dodging tax.
The audit necessitates Preble viewing Bella’s dreams which is disconcerting as their nature is intimate; featuring her younger self (played by Grace Glowicki) to whom Preble feels an attraction. More disturbingly physical evidence from the dreams, such as a dandelion seed, cross-over into the real world. Bella’s choice to live off the grid is motivated by her awareness of a conspiracy whereby the government allows businesses to insert subliminal messages in dreams which influence consumer behaviour. Preble is not only forced to acknowledge he may have unknowingly supported the conspiracy his life is put at risk just by knowing of its existence.
Although Strawberry Mansion is science fiction it is miles away from the slick CGI-heavy films to which audiences have become accustomed. The effects are old-school- stop motion photography, puppets and simple masks being utilised. The approach adds to the eccentric charm of the film. The headgear used to access the dreams looks like something designed by Heath Robinson and constructed from a gas fire flue or cooker filter.
Authors Birney and Audley promote the virtue of a simple, stress-free existence. In his dreams Preble escapes to a tropical island where he and Bella pass the time making up games that can be played with rocks and pebbles.
The point made in Strawberry Mansion – reality can be as satisfying as dreams and fantasy is not something to be feared – emerge gently as the movie progresses. The tone is one of heightened reality; there is an artificial atmosphere in the ‘real life’ scenes – desolate car parks empty of vehicles but full of weeds and Preble approaching Bella’s house by hiking across a lush field rather than simply parking outside. Dan Deacon’s soundtrack soars with electronic orchestration bringing to mind science fiction movies of the past.
Maintaining interest in the film is not always easy. Kentucker Audley’s deferential bureaucrat is a blank personality. There is little background information – we know he lives alone but not if it is by choice – and the character has no interests. Unlike, say, Walter Mitty, he does not even have an interesting fantasy life. Relating to such a dull person is something of a challenge.
The fragile plot does not stand up to scrutiny. It is hard to understand the basis upon which dreams are taxed – whether, say, nightmares qualify for a tax refund. Besides, any government capable of manipulating the choices made by citizens is hardly going to stop at product placement. Some of the dream sequences border on cloyingly cute – with Preble being advised to progress onwards he must become a caterpillar. The emphasis is on promoting the joys of fantasy rather than generating suspense. Preble spends a chunk of the movie trapped in a burning building but there is no sense of danger.
Audiences who are willing to engage with the off-centre approach of Strawberry Mansion will find its dreamy, relaxed vibe surprisingly rewarding.
Strawberry Mansion is in cinemas and on demand 16 September from Bulldog Film Distribution.