It’s hard to get weirdness right. Try too hard and it feels affected; play too safe and it falls flat. Few films manage to feel authentically weird, to maintain a genuinely uncanny quality. Strawberry Mansion is one of those rare films, it is a delightful slice of madness that coheres to its own wonderful logic. This is why the weirdness works so well here, though it is externally confusing to the viewer – who has to get their head around what is being shown to them – it feels internally consistent. This gives it a real sense of authenticity and, when you get to the end and every seeming affectation is shown to be purposeful – or just reoccurs in some interesting way – the result is very satisfying.
This all being said, this is not a movie for most people. The overbearing strangeness will be too much for most and the film does demand you meet it on its terms. Those terms, however, are very interesting. This offbeat film takes place in a retro-stylised future in which our dreams are taxed. The ‘assets’ in them carry costs and using those ‘assets’ therefore incurs a tax payment. Our main character, government agent James Preble (Kentucker Audley, who is also the co-director and co-writer, alongside Albert Birney), is a dream auditor. He has been tasked to look over the dreams of an eccentric older lady, Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller), who – illegally – keeps her dreams stored on VHS, rather than in the new format (bear with me). James uses a bizarre contraption, an 80s inflected tube driven contraption that is very Terry GIlliam but also very low budget sci-fi (it looks awesome), to survey the dreams. These dreams open up new worlds to him and lead the film in bizarre, but wonderful, directions. But, to say more would be to give too much away in a film in which one of the key joys is discovery.
There is a real unpredictability to the film, as it is able to use imagery so fluidly that it is constant engaging and delightful. It is about dreams, traversing them and monitoring them, and the logic of dreams permeates the film. Interestingly, it is like this from the start. Dan Deacon’s amazing electronic score (calling to mind the work of Disasterpiece) percolates with discovery, reaching towards transcendent moments, while also being able to be discordantly sinister when needed. This music underpins the feel of the film, which is consistently heightened. The sense of a being in a dream is as much auditory as it is visual; having this sense throughout pushes a central idea about how dreams relate to reality, and even makes narrative sense at the end. The film is an ode to creativity, the boundless creativity of our internal states. Life and a dream are thinly separated here as one informs the other. The life of the imagination is the life of the dream and this film supports that existence. From the very start, there is a strong anti-capitalist stance, as the world has started to pump adverts into films (and as is inherent in dream taxing). These ideas are a bit on the nose and exist in many other films. However, the execution makes these somewhat prosaic, though relevant, critiques feel fresh again. The dreamscape is so well evoked that encroachment onto it by corporate interests seems genuinely upsetting.
The woozy narrative and wonderful music are married to brilliant production design. The film has the look of a toy house, or of manufactured living, adding to the unreality, but in a sense that is uncanny rather than pronounced. It all could be real, but it does not quite feel real. This is the underpinning philosophy behind the design, everything is stylised and off, but also maintains a sense of reality. This is the world and these are people – and these are things we recognise – they are just skewed. The aesthetic is also evocative of the past, but the idealised past: the past you see in magazines and catalogues. It gives it another dreamlike sheen and is an integral part of why the film works so well. The overall look is influenced by it being on 16mm, with the imperfections you would expect. The film was shot in digital, for ease, and then transposed onto 16mm to get the look they wanted. There is just something about old film and memory (and memory and dreams), perhaps we, as a generation, are too used to linking the past with old film – home videos and the like.
Again, I feel the need to point out how this film will miss for so many. But that is by design. This is a film designed to resonate with a particular crowd. I could describe the influences, providing a laundry list of surrealist and dreamlike filmmakers (Lynch, Cocteau, Waters and even recent cult figures like Jim Hoskings and Matthew Holness come to mind) but to do so would be to betray the singularity of this work. It is very much its own thing and all the better for it. It is certainly not without flaws, the dream logic is powerful but it does lead to a situation where we have a main female character who just exists as an ethereal object of desire. Also, there are points where it does just seem overly affected. This all being said, this is still such a pleasingly different film. It is cohesive in a way that makes its strangeness satisfying, and earned, and is bound to be a cult favourite for years to come.