I remember when I was younger, I would stay up late and play around with the remote from my television. Eventually, I would find these strange Teletext channels. They had a very basic and blocky design — clearly quite a retro feature at that point — but to me it was a brand new technological world I had just uncovered; gradually finding more and more to explore with a child-like fascination. When looking back, Strawberry Mansion resurfaced that same child-like fascination with its own retrofuture world.
Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley’s dystopian future hinges on their skillful approach to world-building —combining a grainy, lo-fi charm with a Tim and Eric weirdness. It mixes anachronisms of the retro and the futuristic together to bake a profoundly weird texture into the film’s form. Worlds like these are a joy to watch as they invite you to decipher their rules and lore; immersing the viewer as a secret inhabitant of the many dimensions Strawberry Mansion has to offer. Every frame has a rich hue, glowing as it’s drenched in a beautiful light that seems to beguile the audience — every frame a kaleidoscopic feast for the eyes as colours burst and entwine.
This delightful daydream aesthetic is an intentional masquerade, distracting you from the darkness of its dystopian undertones that come from the new-found position of a dream auditor — inhabited by our protagonist James Preble (Kentucker Audley). He’s a man burdened with purpose, who struggles under the system he works within. As futuristic as they get, Birney and Audley know how to keep their characters and situations relatable. For example, the notion of taxing someone for their dreams is so hilariously late-stage capitalism. What’s the price of an imaginary oak tree worth compared to a maple and who’s making that money? The projection of pop-up ads directly into the dreams as well are another brilliant touch, with Birney and Audley making sure the details of their world tie back into Preble’s journey in unexpected ways. This blending of dream-worlds and dystopia allows Birney and Audley to create their own striking landscapes — with brushstrokes of Vaporwave, the imaginative, and the outright bizarre.
While Preble’s initial goal is to tax elderly Arabella Isadora — their introduction soon shifts Preble’s entire world, as we dismantle the bureaucratic confines that Preble works within, and he begins to reassert himself as a profoundly independent dreamer. The loose and nonsensical nature of the dreams themselves seem to be a retort from Birney and Audley direction for letting art be beautifully weird — allowing it to flow and crystallise in whatever fashion it wishes. In the modern day, there are intensive conditions that art is placed through before we are allowed to observe it; things must be marketed, people must be spotlighted.
In Strawberry Mansion, creativity is the driving force behind everything — the joy comes from not knowing what may come now, but having a youthful excitement for what you may see. It’s reminiscent of the epic journeys we would all take inside our imagination when we were children — sometimes accompanied by mythical beings or fantastical entities. Much like Preble, we’d explore endless horizons of oceans, or imagine ourselves as castaways on an idyllic island. There were no rules, no limitations – there was only the limits of your creativity and imaginative fascination.
Where many films often struggle in the battle between style and substance, Strawberry Mansion never has to worry about that — because the style is the substance. The duo have cleverly balanced a unique rose-tinted darling daydream aesthetic with a tonal shift into a more nightmarish descent towards Adult Swim 2am commercial stylings (think Too Many Cooks) with anthropomorphic rats and corporate werewolves of Wall Street. Its delightfully incoherent in the most loving of ways, especially with the fluidity of time and space as the key to the film’s core. It opens and crosses so many liminal barriers, it feels as though the viewer is dreaming. Strawberry Mansion invites you to throw your cares of logic and reason out the window, and simply dream deeply with it — enjoying what is present and what will come.
Strawberry Mansion screened at this year’s 47th Seattle International Film Festival.