Monday, February 1, 2021

Sundance with Abe: Strawberry Mansion

I’m thrilled to be covering the Sundance Film Festival for the eighth time. This year, I’m not in Park City, Utah, but watching films virtually and reviewing them as soon as I can.

Strawberry Mansion
Directed by Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney

It’s hard to know what dreams mean. The scenes people experience while they are sleeping may be entirely confusing and unrealistic, but that doesn’t stop some from trying to interpret and assign significance to them. It is easy to find connections between something in a dream and a subsequent real-life event, and those links have the ability both to mystify and comfort those who believe. In religious texts and science fiction stories, dreams can be very influential, and there are those who, given the opportunity, would infiltrate and manipulate what people’s minds show them while they are unconscious to serve their own purposes.

James (Kentucker Audley) works as a dream auditor, surveying recorded dreams on behalf of the government so that they can be taxed appropriately. When he arrives at the home of Arabella (Penny Fuller), he finds a wealth of material, all kept on old VHS tapes, and begins to immerse himself in the bizarre sequences he sees. He soon discovers an alluring mystery and becomes entranced by the young Bella (Grace Glowicki), learning unexpected truths about the work he does and its nefarious purposes as he is further embedded within her sprawling, wildly creative mind.

This film opens with James seated in his own dream in a room with items that are all vibrantly red, the only true indicator that this moment is likely not actually happening. The whole of this film is an unapologetically strange and dizzying experience, with the banal conversation that occurs between James and his all-too-willing hostess almost too normal, in stark contrast with the perplexing complexity of the dreams he visits. It’s difficult to decipher even before signs of trouble emerge, and trying to fully understand what is supposed to be going on is a foolish endeavor.

There is something deeply captivating at play here, and even if most of what happens doesn’t make organic sense, there’s a wondrousness and beauty to all of it that is hard to ignore. The presentation of the scenes is purposely stark and discolored, painting a future several decades from now that looks and feels more like the recent past than the technologically-advanced worlds typically portrayed in cinema. This film requires a deliberate immersion into the incomprehensible, one that doesn’t necessarily provide many answers to the plethora of questions the film asks, but for those willing to take the plunge, it’s a fascinating if undeniably peculiar ride.


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