Strawberry Mansion is a charming indie mess

Steven Watts, Features Editor

When I first saw Strawberry Mansion playing at Normal Theater last weekend, I reread the summary three times and it still made no sense. I knew I had to see the movie for the summary to make any sort of sense, and I was only met with more uncertainty.

Directed by Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, Strawberry Mansion takes place in the year 2035 where dreams are taxed. When James Preble (played by Audley) goes to perform an audit on an eccentric old woman, he begins to fall in love with her and her dreams. While Preble taxes the woman’s dreams, he begins to unravel secrets about dreams that put him in danger.

The film has already earned a spot on the Letterboxd list titled “Psychosexual dramas, nihilistic fever dreams and surrealism with a touch of humour,” home to movies including Mulholland Drive and Eraserhead. I don’t think I could describe the tone of the movie any better.

When I exited my theater, I was at a total loss for words. The longer I’ve thought about the film, the more I’ve appreciated it. The movie was not technically good. The visual effects were straight out of the 1970s, the dialogue was often cringe-inducing and it was nearly impossible to keep track of what was happening. Usually, all of those things would bother me, but something about this movie made all of those flaws just feel endearing. 

Strawberry Mansion was an incredibly high concept film. It felt like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind if it was directed by David Lynch. For the most part, I think Audley and Birney pulled off that abstract feeling well in spite of the film’s small budget that’s shown in its effects.

Most of the themes in the film were abstract. Though, there were also times when it was already obvious what the movie was trying to say, and the directors would make sure to further spell it out to the audience. Halfway through the movie, the tone of the film shifted completely and the movie became a critique of capitalism. Audley and Birney’s work of hammering home the anti-consumerism theme was exhausting. 

At one point, Preble was literally drowning in faceless corporate products. I’m sure the two directors thought that imagery was clever, but I felt spoonfed. 

The conflict between the abstract and straightforward was also caused by the  muddled tones throughout the movie. At some points I thought Strawberry Mansion was trying to be some sort of avant-garde horror movie, but then it would quickly shift back to a sweet romance.

The constantly shifting moods bothered me quite a bit when I first saw the film, but the more time I’ve thought about the changing moods, the more I’ve liked that choice. Audley and Birney recognize how strange and surreal dreams can feel and captured that feeling incredibly well. 

The real issues I have with the movie mostly stem from its simultaneous faith and lack of confidence in its audience. There were times where I found myself asking  “why do they keep showing closeups of this turtle eating a strawberry?” A lot of the symbolism in the movie felt underdeveloped and I’m not sure Audley or Birney knew what they were trying to say. . 

While in the dream world, there was a frog-man who played a saxophone and a caterpillar crawled across deserts, oceans and glaciers. The absolute absurdity of every piece of this movie captured the surreal feeling of dreams and nightmares perfectly and I found myself completely invested in the world of the story.

I’m still not entirely sure how to feel about this movie. I think that I liked it a lot, but I’m also not sure what the movie was. I have no doubts that the film will gain a cult following comparable to other so-bad-they’re-good movies like The Room or Constantine. I’ll be interested to see how the Strawberry Mansion fandom develops in the coming years.

 

3/5 Stars