Movies speak to us in different ways. Sometimes it’s the narrative that grabs us, such as in the films of the Dardenne Brothers or Asghar Farhadi. Sometimes it’s the spectacle that draws us to the theaters and away from the bustle of everyday life, evidenced by summer blockbusters annually. And other times, a sensation can immerse us and enable us to live vicariously through the characters on-screen. This is the kind of film that Strawberry Mansion is.
Directed by Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, Strawberry Mansion is the duo’s second film together, following 2017’s Sylvio. It stars Audley in the lead role of James Preble, a man who is a tax auditor of dreams. His job is to review the dreams that people have, and provide tax valuations for the items that appear in the dreams. His work leads him to the home of the elderly Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller) (a house that looks somewhat like Count Olaf’s house in A Series of Unfortunate Events). Preble discovers that Arabella’s dreams are stored across a couple thousand VHS tapes rather than a portable method, and his stay at her house is greatly lengthened. While auditing her dreams, Preble himself appears within the dream as an observer, colored in a light blue tint akin to scenes in early silent cinema, while the rest of Arabella’s dreamscape appears in color.
As Preble continues to explore Arabella’s dreams, he notices odd occurrences, separate from the usual magic realism of dreams. A bucket of chicken that frequents Preble’s own dreams appears in Arabella’s, visually distorted and not entirely visible – clearly not present in Arabella’s original dream. And when Arabella has dinner with Preble later on, she informs him that she wears a Christmas-light adorned helmet (they might not actually be Christmas lights, but they resemble the part) when she sleeps to prevent product placement ads from appearing in her dreams. And with the craftiness of advertisements in today’s world, this doesn’t seem too far fetched. Preble has difficulty at first grasping this idea; however, we’ve noticed within Preble’s dreams that he has a “friend” who often brings buckets of chicken to eat with Preble, and when spider webs mysteriously appear within Preble’s dream, it is this friend who miraculously has this new brand of insecticide on hand.
When we first meet Arabella, she seems senile though it’s difficult to maintain that view after her revelation about dreams is shared with Preble. Strawberry Mansion allows the eccentricity of her character to flourish, and the film isn’t too concerned with exploring the subplot of advertisements appearing in dreams. Strawberry Mansion is more so interested in depicting the dream world where Preble meets and falls in love with a young Arabella, the two sharing a Swiftian life of adventure in a world different than our own. Audley, at times, narrates the wondrous experiences the couple share, providing necessary transitions in story as the couple appears as beets within a dinner Preble shared with the elderly Arabella and as Preble appears as captain of a ship of mice men, searching for Arabella who was lost at sea.
Strawberry Mansion takes full advantage of a compelling soundtrack from Dan Deacon who provides atmospheric tones and suspenseful soundscapes that mesh with the fantastic images we see on screen. For the most part, Strawberry Mansion strays from traditional narrative as plot points are unresolved, but this is to great effect as we are drawn into the dream world and care less and less about what happens elsewhere. Plus, if you wait until the end of the film’s credits, you’ll find that these unfulfilled plot points aren’t really an issue. After all, our own dreams don’t always follow convention, do they?