Directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney’s dreamy journey into the fantastic receives a wonderful Blu-ray presentation.
Strawberry Mansion has finally come home. Newly released on Blu-ray by Music Box Films, this astonishing motion picture benefits from a well-decorated physical release. In the depths of The Streaming Age, it’s a welcome reminder of the delights and comforts of home video.
It’s the year 2035 when the film opens. James Preble is a bored and disaffected dream auditor, monitoring dreams downloaded to the government and assessing the proper tax. He must collect back taxes from Arabella “Bella” Isadora, an eccentric hermit still keeping her dreams on VHS tapes instead of streaming them. Immediately, he’s taken into a web of wonder and a government conspiracy to place advertisements in our dreams. Together, he and Bella will unlock the mysteries of the past and free the dreams of the future.
As early reviews of the film at Sundance 2021 noticed, Bella’s self-styled job as an “atmosphere creator” is an apt term for directors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley. Strawberry Mansion is a richly detailed film from the moment we enter. Not only is the production design intricately styled to the finest detail, but so is Dan Deacon’s ethereal synth score. Together they create the architecture on which Birney and Audley will structure their narrative and themes.
While Strawberry Mansion is very much a celebration of the external and visual, it would be inhospitable not to mention the deep interiority of the central performances, which have solid blueprints of their own. As the future-actual Bella, Penny Fuller (All The President’s Men) is an open and sharing hostess who invites into her smile to wonder what she knows. Bella isn’t forthright with her secrets, so we must deduce her context along with James. Fuller plays with us like a true eccentric, a fool with wisdom we must first learn to translate. Fuller’s Bella is twinkling, mischievous, and philosophical as only someone who’s reached the existential limits of society can be.
Audley’s James Preble perfectly compliments Bella as her mirror opposite. He deliberately begins as a two-dimensional character, an archetypal noir taxman flatfooting his way through life with no deep interior. Preble is properly numb to the world—to the point that he quite literally discovers himself in Bella’s world. Audley seamlessly transforms as Preble has the cobwebs dusted off his spirit.
Their pairing indeed benefits from Audley’s work as co-director. He brings his actorly perspective to the narrative elements, drawing out the emotional beats necessary to tell the story with his sensitivity towards performance. Albert Birney helms the visual aspects of the story. The blu-ray includes two of his short films, “Cactus” and “Buzzer,” which showcase him as an artistic talent that continues to grow and experiment with mediums. Yet they come from the same perspective. Strawberry Mansion can achieve its remarkable atmosphere essentially because Birney has a firm grasp of the abstract. As a surrealist video artist who found early success with Vine videos, Birney has an animator’s eye and logic flitting between ideas on loose but shimmering threads.
Birney and Audley are certainly an Odd Couple pair that somehow find harmony with each other, as their audio commentary and behind-the-scenes documentary make clear. Birney’s conversations are dream-like themselves, tangential but surprising, whereas Audley is steady and methodical. During crucial scenes of the film, Birney and Audley will frequently discuss how their two approaches or ideas came together, melded, and formed something entirely new. Listening to them tell production stories provides a distinctive look into the nature of collaboration.
As I clicked the clamshell case closed and shuffled space for the disc on my well-crowded shelves, I couldn’t help but think about how fitting it is to have this on a physical release. Like the towers of VHS tapes holding Bella’s dreams, the blu-ray is a sort of anachronism, a holdover from an earlier time that now seems obsolete. It adds yet another layer to the feeling of timelessness inside the Strawberry Mansion.
Despite being set in the future, the atmosphere within the film is still very analog. Within the film, there are all sorts of things outside of time, not just the VHS tapes. James drives a vintage car, and the auditing equipment is tactile and decidedly “plugged in.” Taking it further, though Birney and Audley shot and edited it digitally, they transferred the movie onto 16mm film and color corrected it, which gives the film a delightful crackling and material quality.
Strawberry Mansion careens through the corridors of composition, decorating the frame with pixels, neon, plastic, matte pastels, clay, and fur. A blu-ray disc preserves all these wonder-full textures forever. But it also acts as its own “ad-blocker.”
As the film playfully points out, The Streaming Age has opened up the possibility for capitalism to permeate every aspect of our lives. We can enjoy our fantasies in peace only when we disconnect or put up a barrier between us and big business. Once Strawberry Mansion makes its way to streaming platforms, there’s an ironic likelihood that it will be preceded by or, worse, interrupted by an ad. For better and worse, such an intrusion might cause cognitive dissonance, but it would also drive home the artistic message of Strawberry Mansion in a way I don’t think Birney and Audley thought possible.
Their film is a remarkable journey into the fantastic. With its richly detailed world and complex interior performances, Strawberry Mansion is a love letter to dreams, art, and cinema. This brilliant blu-ray released by Music Box Films preserves it so that we can return to it and audit its wonder any time we need it.
Strawberry Mansion is now available on DVD, Bluray, and VOD from Music Box Films.