The film begins with a puzzled man (Kentucker Audley, who co-directed and co-wrote the screenplay, with Albert Birney) in a room where everything is pink Pepto Bismol. Another man (Linas Phillips) enters, carrying a bucket of fried chicken to go. What exactly is going on here? This question will come up with some frequency. So will buckets of fried chicken to go.
The perplexed man is James Preble, a tax auditor for the federal government. He has the low-key, slightly distracted manner of a CPA who suffers from math anxiety. With his fedora, thin purple tie and cheap suit, Preble looks like a hipster dressed up as a private detective at a costume party.
It’s 2035 and dreams are now registered and taxed. The recordings are kept on “airsticks”. Bella (Penny Fuller), a captivating and eccentric older woman, is still recording her own on VHS tapes. Remember these? “Strawberry Mansion” has something of the spirit, and the technology, of Michel Gondry’s ode to the video cassette, “Be Kind Rewind” (2008). But in comparison, it makes this ancient undertaking appear like an exercise in Bressonian austerity.
Bella has 2,000 tapes. Preble is sent to audit them. His house is the house mentioned in the title. Fortunately, she is non-conformist. “I consider myself an atmosphere maker,” Bella says when Preble asks about her profession.
She is completely intuitive. He is . . . other. When Preble at one point says, “I think I’m losing my mind,” Bella smiles. “Well, it was about time.” She raises her glass of wine: “To lose your mind. Later he said, “There is something I don’t understand. A delighted Bella replies, “I’m glad to hear that.” She is in the atmosphere of “Strawberry Mansion” made of flesh (or celluloid). In his confusion, he is definitely the audience surrogate.
The machine Preble uses to view Bella’s tapes is gloriously cumbersome. Forget steampunk. It is postmodern steampunk. An equally formidable device is the helmet that Bella designed to prevent advertisements from entering dreams. Ads in dreams? Well, if ads can be taxed, surely they can be monetized. “Strawberry Mansion” is many things: fantasy, sci-fi (sort of), romance, comedy, midnight movie waiting to happen and, yes, consumer satire.
Romance arrives thanks to a mysterious young woman (Grace Glowicki) who wears a long white dress and pink high-top sneakers. She keeps appearing in these dreams. Where are Preble’s dreams? Or both? More buckets of fried chicken are consumed, as is a chicken shake. The latter is perhaps the most fantastical thing about this often mind-blowing film. We meet a waiter who is a giant frog. . . a man covered in grass. . . the crew of a sailboat who are human-sized mice. The list goes on, not to mention the frequent use of lollipop colors, like in this bedroom with Pepto-Bismol pigmentation.
Almost as striking as any dream sequence is the tone of the film. “Strawberry Mansion” is as emotionally overpowered as it is visually riotous. He is vigorously non-emphatic and calmly stilted. Everything seems distant and different. There’s something slightly hippy about Bella, in a good way; and in its lo-fi blend of playfulness, friendliness and experimentation, there’s something more than slightly ’60s about the film. It’s logic. After all, what surrounds a Strawberry Mansion? Why, strawberry fields, of course.
Written and directed by Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney. With Audley, Penny Fuller, Grace Glowicki, Linas Phillips. At Brattle. 91 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13, some emotionally intense scenes and characters in peril).
Mark Feeney can be contacted at [email protected]