Strawberry Mansion (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A dreamland to be audited

It is difficult to describe what I saw from “Strawberry Mansion”, which is probably one of the quirkiest works I have ever seen during several recent years. Essentially a series of offbeat moments developed from its simple story setting, the movie will alternately baffle and amuse you from the beginning to the end, and you may scratch your head at times during your viewing, but you will also come to wonder what may come next from the filmmakers behind this impressively whimsical piece of work.

Right from the opening scene, the movie throws us into its strange futuristic background. It is around the 2030s, and, thanks to considerable technological advance, almost everything in human dream can be recorded and then taxed by the government. The hero of the story, James Preble (Kentucker Audley), has worked as a government auditor checking on whatever is dreamed by his human subjects, and, probably because of being well aware of how taxable dream can be, his dream is always unfolded inside a small and monotonously colored interior space. This solitary subconscious space of his is always visited by a jolly figure who often talks like a walking advertisement machine, so we are a bit amused to see James eating and drinking certain commercial stuffs recommended by this figure in his latest dream.

As James goes through another day as usual, there comes an unexpected change via his latest task. He goes to a house located in the middle of the remote spot, and this house belongs to Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller), an old lady who baffles James a lot right from when she comes to see him at the front door of her residence. He is supposed to audit on many dreams of hers which have been left unchecked by his agency for years, but it turns out that she has recorded her dreams on heaps of VHS tapes (If you do not know what they are, please do some search on Google), and that means he is going to spend lots of time in her house for doing his job as usual.

While he stays at Arabella’s house for several days, James checks her past dreams one by one via a special equipment provided by her. As scanning one taxable object after another, he comes to notice a young woman who is clearly Arabella’s younger version, and he finds himself gradually smitten with her even though he knows well that she is just a fragment of Arabella’s subconscious experience.

In the meantime, the movie often catches us off guard as doling out one odd moment after another. There is a little humorous moment involved with a dancing skeleton, and there is also a weirdly romantic scene between Arabella’s younger self and a mysterious figure whose whole body is covered with lots of grass. As Dan Deacon’s synthesizer score is played on the background, we become more aware of how artificial these and other dreamy moments look on the screen, but we still observe them with curiosity nonetheless thanks to their vivid mood and details to be admired. Although it is clear that the production budget of the movie is considerably small, the movie still impresses us through numerous inventive touches reminiscent of those quirky works of Terri Gilliam and Michel Gondry, and we are not so surprised when the movie delves further into its fantasy background along with its hero later in the story.

For not spoiling your entertainment, I will not go into details on what happens during its second half, but I can tell you that the mood becomes darker with the appearance of a supporting character played by Reed Birney, a veteran character actor who recently drew our attention as one of the four main performers of “Mass” (2021). While his character looks courteous on the surface at first, it does not take much time for James to sense a sinister intention behind this character, and his negative impression on Birney’s character is wildly amplified as James subsequently comes to swing back and forth between dream and reality more than once.

Although it occasionally feels like running out of its narrative momentum during its second half, the movie remains anchored by enough gravitas under the competent direction of directors/writers/editors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley, who previously worked together in “Sylvio” (2017). The story falters a bit during its climatic part, but Birney and Audley’s imaginative style goes wild as before, and I especially like a key scene where our hero must fight against what has been blocking his mind for years.

In case of Audley and several other main cast members in the film, they simply occupy their respective roles without overshadowing whatever is unfolded on the screen. As Audley is humbly holding the center as required, Penny Fuller and Grace Glowicki are convincing in their positive aura on Audley’s character, and Linas Phillips is also effective as another crucial supporting character in the story.

To be frank with you, I am not as enthusiastic about it as other reviewers and critics, but “Strawberry Mansion” is one of more distinctive works of this year, and it certainly deserves to be compared to many other offbeat fantasy films ranging from Gilliam’s “Brazil” (1985) to Gondry’s “The Science of Sleep” (2006), I still think the movie is more or less than a modest test run by its two filmmakers, but the overall result surely shows that they are talented filmmakers to watch, so I guess I can have some expectation on their next work.

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