The world of dreams has been fertile ground for cinema since, I want to say, its inception. It could be argued that most movies and stories are all rooted in a kind of dreamscape – Hollywood has been called the dream factory after all – bursting forth from the imaginations of storytellers to take us to places we've never been before. But sometimes they take a more literal focus, from high-concept slashers to mind-bending heist movies.
In the case of Strawberry Mansion, the world of dreams is portrayed with a satisfyingly lo-fi aesthetic that often conjures up several images that are more inspired than films that have quadruple its budget at their disposal. Set in the near future, the film takes place in a world where the government has found a way to tax your dreams. We follow government man, James Preble (Kentucker Audley, who also co-writes and co-directs), as he heads out to conduct a dream audit on elderly eccentric artist Bella (Penny Fuller), who has all her dreams stored on old VHS tapes.
What starts as any other job however will lead Preble on a life-changing odyssey into both his mind and that of Bella's, discovering a connection he never knew existed, as well as the truth behind the government and technology that he serves.
The concept of Audley and Albert Birney's film is essentially a set-up to escape into a world where the rules of logic need not exist, as Prebel's connection to the real world goes further and further out of his reach, particularly as more sinister forces start to play a part. On his adventure, he is met with images of hurtling comets, fiery blue demons, a crew of rat sailors and a frog waiter with a love of playing the saxophone.
The imagery is all suitably weird and achieved with a DIY sensibility that gives the film both a visual personality and also an oddly comforting and pleasingly retro vibe. It helps as well that most of the images are rooted in genuine pathos and emotions of love and loneliness – as any searing dreams tend to be. It's not just weird for weird's sake, there is an endearing quality to both the performances and the journey that Prebel goes on that may only be moments in the real world but last for centuries when in a deep sleep. It is all tied together by an exceptional score from Dan Deacon, which adds an incredible sense of scale and heart to the proceedings.
Where the film is less successful is in its satire of consumer culture, as it becomes apparent the government has found a means of inserting product placement into everyone's dreams. It's a neat idea, and it is a theme which helps provide some stakes and moments of both eerie and funny imagery. But the film often has the habit of over-explaining its more complex ideas of the role advertising has in our lives, and how it can invade our minds and warp what choices we make in life.
This can rob the film of some of its potency as a takedown of consumer culture, in this regard, but for the most part, it is a film that becomes more concerned with Prebel's odyssey of becoming a man more in tune with his feelings and finding a more noble and fulfilling purpose.
While the film's themes and aesthetics do have an air of Michel Gondry about them, to compare the two doesn't seem fair to Audley and Birley's Strawberry Mansion. It is very much working in its register of earnest oddball romance and it is thoroughly endearing as it goes into its phantasmagorical adventure made with an economical sense of craft that doesn't skimp on fantastic imagery. It's a sweet, bonkers and rather lovely candy-coloured surprise.
Strawberry Mansion is now playing in select cinemas.