Strawberry Mansion

Strawberry Mansion is a difficult movie to wrap your head around. By design, it's weird and impenetrable. You aren't supposed to follow it the way you would a normal film, you're supposed to experience it the way you would a dream. That quality means that viewers' mileage will vary. Some people will become enchanted by the assemblage of fantastical sights the picture offers. Others will not. I was in the latter camp. Despite appreciating the intent, the execution left me cold.

The story is set in 2035. Dreams are filled with product placement, and the government charges taxes on imagery in them. James Preble (Kentucker Audley) is a “dream auditor” sent to an isolated farmhouse to investigate Bella Isadora (Penny Fuller), an eccentric old woman who stores her dreams on VHS tapes. As James goes through them, he begins to fall for young Bella (Grace Glowicki) after encountering her several times. In the real world, Bella's family doesn't seem to want him probing her unconscious mind. In the dream world, they fall in love, ultimately going on the lam from the demons and fried chicken salesmen seeking to tear them apart.

Offbeat images are abundant in Strawberry Mansion. There are massive rats who sail a pirate ship, a creature made entirely of grass, asteroids with human faces, and a room where everything is pink. Audley and co-director Albert Birney fill their movie with lo-fi visual effects that are admittedly creative. On a visual level, you do get the same sort of disorientation that a dream provides – that use of identifiable objects in an uncommon manner, creating a sense where nothing feels quite right. The filmmakers deserve credit for carrying out their vision.

It's on a storytelling level that the movie fails. So much emphasis is put on trippy visuals that all other aspects recede into the background. James and young Grace are one-dimensional characters with very little personality. Caring about whether they can find happiness together becomes challenging. Strawberry Mansion also suffers from an obtuseness that grows increasingly irritating the longer it goes on. By the last half-hour, any pretense of a plot goes out the window as the barrage of crazy images takes over. Without characters we feel we know, and without a story that seems to be leading to a satisfying resolution, and without any genuine emotion, you just end up staring at the screen impassively, waiting for the credits to roll. What is the movie trying to say? I never figured that out, so the non-stop eccentricity felt pointless.

I suspect a percentage viewers will like Strawberry Mansion a whole lot more than I did. If you're a fan of stuff that's avant garde for avant garde's sake, this may well be your cup of tea. If, on the other hand, you want something – anything – to connect with in a movie, it will likely leave you frustrated.

The Blu-ray contains a thorough assortment of bonus features that include audio commentary from directors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley, a 40-minute making-of featurette, deleted and extended scenes, test footage and animation, a music video, a gallery of watercolor and collage images, and a couple short films from Birney.

out of four

Strawberry Mansion is unrated, but contains mild violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.