Some movies exist to be viewed at a film festival and worn like a badge of honour: I watched a purposely obtuse film from the “eccentric” section and only complained a little! It’s a film festival rite of passage.
Strawberry Mansion’s premise is ripe with promise. In a future where the government records dreams in order to tax them, dream auditor James Preble (Kentucker Audley) gets caught up in the tangled dreams of an aging eccentric woman named Arabella (Penny Fuller). Arabella wears a special helmet to sleep at night – to prevent dream commercials, she tells Preble, which sounds a lot like the other nonsense generated by an old lady’s dementia. But once Preble begins reviewing her dream tapes, he finds that certain products are strangely censored. These, she claims, are the advertised products the dream helmet filters out. She’s frankly surprised he hasn’t figured it out himself yet. Imagine what the ability to advertise to people personally and subconsciously through their dreams would do to the industry. Suddenly Preble’s cravings for fried chicken are suspect. Suddenly everything is suspect. Even accepting that anyone has the right to view your dreams, or tax them, who has the right to infiltrate them with targeted content? Love, love, love this premise.
Did not love the execution. It possibly goes without saying that Strawberry Mansion is low-budget, bordering, I think, on no budget. Still, there were plenty of cheap things that look great on camera, like the egg cartons and juice containers painted an array of aesthetically pleasing colours that fill an entire room. So when others, like Preble’s auditing helmet, look comparatively bad (ie, looks exactly like what it is: a cardboard box and a couple of plastic cups), I can only surmise that this is a stylistic choice to deliberately antagonize us.
Plenty of movies, however, have excelled despite and sometimes because of low-budgets. Where Strawberry Mansion lost me is in its frequent, and frequently obfuscating, dream sequences. It takes a flight of fancy and runs it straight into the ground, burning through its grace period very quickly. I’m usually more tolerant and more forgiving of movies that dare to exist outside the box, but this one seems to value wackiness over story in a way that makes it hard to relate to and harder still to like.
I loved this movie’s imaginative premise and its outsized ambitions, and I think it was trying to say something sincere about human connection and our collective existential dread, but despite a few pleasing, fleeting images, Strawberry Mansion just felt inaccessible to me. I want story-tellers to dream big, but to reach an audience, you must also dream smart.