Directors – Kentucker Audley, Albert Birney – 2020 – US – Cert. 12a – 91m
A strange and compelling tale, at once whimsical and terrifying, of a tax inspector sent to audit an artist’s dreams – out in UK cinemas and on demand Friday, September 16th
Nothing can prepare you for the experience of watching this extraordinary film. A man sits in his strawberry-coloured kitchen. In his strawberry-coloured fridge are strawberry-coloured boxes of food and strawberry-coloured cartons of drink. A knock at his door opens to reveal billowing clouds floating into the room like fog. It’s his friend who has arrived with a golden bucket container of fried chicken pieces and a bottle of cola. They eat and enjoy.
If you think this is weird, the scene turns up on the man’s video alarm clock. And the film has barely got started. Our hero’s work today involves a long drive to a lone house in the middle of a field. At the door, James Preble (Kentucker Audley) announces to the elderly occupant Arabella “Bella” Isadora (Penny Fuller) that he’s here to audit her dreams. As government legislation of seven year requires. She has over 2 000 VHS tapes, but it seems she hasn’t yet got around to fulfilling the legal requirement of the latest software. No matter. He’ll put on his helmet, go through the tapes and work out her tax liability.
In this house, though, his head begins to confuse dreams and reality. Soon, he’s increasingly spending time with beautiful young woman Bella (Grace Glowicki) and falling in love with her, but dark forces threaten to intervene and destroy the couple’s happiness. After she vanishes from their idyllic island paradise, he searches the seas for her in a galleon whose two crew members have the heads of mice until one day he encounters the blue demon who holds her captive…
It’s a strange, surreal affair which works in terms of its dream logic and makes sense on an emotional level. Behind it all, it cuts through to some pretty important issues. Why are we constantly being sold products with ad agencies increasingly finding more and more spaces in our world for doing so as the seek to make more and more money? In the world shown here, the situation has got so bad that advertising space in individual people’s dreams is being deployed to sell them things.
Your hostile family may burn down your home as you sleep in it. Fearsome demons make kidnap your loved one and take her away, chained into servitude with no hope of escape.
Something about it recalls the child’s fairy tale, based around simple archetypes, but this is not a kids’ film: rather it’s about adult life and society gone terribly, terribly wrong – and as such it may well strike a chord.
The directors don’t appear to have much money in their budget, but they more than make up for this with a constant level of invention. The mise-en-scène moves constantly between live action and every form of animation you can imagine, in a manner not entirely dissimilar to the work of Czech film pioneers Karel Zeman and Jan Švankmajer. The heroine’s father rising from his grave to blow his horn recalls the skeletons rising from the ground in Jason And The Argonauts (stop frame animation: Ray Harryhausen, 1963), and later the couple turn into fireballs (thanks to 2D animation techniques) hurtling towards Earth, The overall playfulness recalls the stranger films of Michel Gondry (Mood Indigo, 2013; Be Kind Rewind, 2008, The Science Of Sleep, 2006).
The plot may be about the significance of dreams rather than anything pertaining to the multiverse, but it feels like a version of Everything Everywhere All At Once (Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert, 2022) – another film about adult life and society gone terribly, terribly wrong – minus the martial arts action and shot largely in someone’s garden shed yet possessing a similarly high level of inventiveness. Here though, the tax man isn’t the opposition but the protagonist, even though he may well be fighting some sort of enemy within.
And while parts of the film play with the idea of the damsel in distress, it’s also infused with the suggestion that there are a lot of males who are in trouble in the world with some of them actually causing its problems, while women see things with a lot more clarity and ultimately understand how to sort them out. All very contradictory and the film is nowhere near as clear-cut as that, and may well give rise to very different interpretations along gender lines. Whatever, it’s a true original and most definitely worth 90+ minutes of your time.
Strawberry Mansion is out in cinemas and on demand in the UK on Friday, September 16th.