Directors: Kentucker Audley, Albert Birney (USA). Year of Release:2021
An advert for Cap’n Kelly fried chicken. It appears to be playing on a small television playing in a Barbie-like room which is coloured entirely strawberry pink. A man in the room looks for strawberry food in the strawberry fridge and unsuccessfully tries to pour water out of the strawberry taps. Suddenly another man with a beard and Hawaiian shirt appears at the window, bringing Cap’n Kelly chicken in a bucket with generic cola, and invites himself in.
The man from the room at a drive-in chicken store. He is dressed, as before, like Tom Waits – dark suit, tie and a trilby hat. He asks after their latest offer – a chicken shake, which appears to be a drink made from liquefied chicken. Grimacing when he hears the description, he says he’ll give it a miss and stick to his original order (which they have upgraded for an extra dollar). Just as he is about to leave, he changes his mind and takes the drink after all.
A strawberry castle in the middle of the countryside. It’s that man again, doing his day job as a dream tax auditor. He knocks on the door, and announces himself as James Preble, saying that he’s been invited there by Arabella Isadora. An older woman answers, saying that she will call Arabella. She then returns and tells the man that he may only enter the house if he licks a strawberry ice cream that she holds out to him. It is all coloured strawberry, even the cone.
If you go to see Strawberry Mansion in the wrong mood, you could get very annoyed, very quickly. It is full of quirk – a turtle called Sugarbaby which plays the piano, a saxophone-playing man-sized frog, equally man-sized mice in navy uniform. A fly speaks from its entrapment in a spider’s web telling Preble to be careful – they are out to get him. The film inhabits the twilight between dreams and reality, but the reality that it shows us is scarcely more logical that the weirdest dreams.
Preble’s job is to go through recordings of people’s dreams and audit them for tax. Normally the dreams are recorded on disc, but Arabella (call me Bella) is old-school and has all hers on thousand of VHS videos. She tells Preble that he can stay in Sugarbaby’s room for as long as he needs. He dons a gizmo which allows him to watch the recorded dream. Whenever anything appears – from a buffalo to a violin or a dandelion, prices appear showing their cost and the amount of tax due.
The film simultaneously follows several different time schemes. There is the “present day”, as Preble carries out the audit. But when he gets up in the morning, Bella has died. Her son arrives with his scary family. We later learn that the son is the CEO of a company which is inserting adverts into people’s dreams, something which can only be by-passed by a device that Bella has developed with her late husband. He does his best to persuade Preble not to continue his audit.
Then there are the various dreams. Preble appears in Bella’s dreams as a fuzzy figure in the background. Most of the dreams are about Bella as a young woman. Preble and Bella start a sort of relationship after she saves him from her angry son-to-be by escaping a wardrobe by swimming to a desert island. As they seem to be headed for an idyllic life together, she tells him that he must return to real life, as her son has hit Preble with a bowling pin and is burning down his room.
Dreams and reality start to impact upon each other. As Preble lies with a wounded head. his room engulfed in flames, his dream representative notices that his shoe has just burst into flames. There is obviously some sort of interconnection, but this is not laid on with a trowel. Different things happen in the different levels of the film. It doesn’t help to try to chase down some underlying logic, to ask why this particular thing is happening now. Just sit back and enjoy the show.
There is more, much more, Strawberry Mansion is exhausting to watch, on account of all the ideas that it is flinging at us. Some of them work better than others, but none is less than interesting. And it is all the better that this is a film which flaunts its low budget. The helmet with which people can avoid adverts being pushed into their dreams has been obviously rigged up by the props department from anything that was just lying around.
I think that it would be too pompous to see Strawberry Mansion as being primarily a film about the encroachment of big business into our most private spheres. That message is there, but it only works because the film is a piece of silly fun. By the way, this is a celebration, not a criticism. Indeed it seems that the most negative critical reviews have been those that have taken it the most seriously. This is not a manifesto – it is a bit of fluff, which happens to be really funny.
The best way to enjoy Strawberry Mansion is to not think too hard about what it’s supposed to mean. It is what it is. Different reviewers have tried to make comparisons with Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton, or even with the frankly terrible Inception. The comparison which sprang to my mind was Douglas Coupland’s light comments on modern capitalism which do not try to force home their point but tell an entertaining tale.
This is a film worth seeing, but only if you’re prepared to meet it halfway. If you enter the cinema looking for something to hate, you’ll find what you’re looking for straight away.