I grew up in a time when Michel Gondry was a golden god to artsy teens everywhere and not a kitschy fad everyone’s embarrassed to admit they were super into. Gondry’s proto-Etsy music videos for classics like “Everlong,” “Bachelorette,” and “Fell in Love with a Girl” might still hold nostalgic value, but there isn’t much of a vocal reverence for him as an established auteur these days. No one’s going around sharing screengrabs from Mood Indigo or The Science of Sleep with copypasta tags like “We used to be a country, a proper country.” I’ve always been on the hook for Michel Gondry’s distinct brand of twee surrealism, though, to the point where I still get excited when I see it echoed in films from younger upstarts who were obviously inspired by his work, like in Sorry to Bother You or Girl Asleep. Maybe I should be rolling my eyes at his visual preciousness now that I’m a thirtysomething cynic with a desk job instead of a teenage poetry student, but I’m happy to swoon instead.
So, of course I was won over by a twee fantasy epic about dream-hopping lovers dodging pop-up ads in a hand-crafted, near-future dystopia. Strawberry Mansion continues the Michel Gondry tradition of playing with analog arts-and-crafts techniques to create fantastic dream worlds on a scrappy budget. If you still get a warm, fuzzy feeling from stop-motion, puppetry, tape warp, and low-tech green screen surrealism, there’s a good chance you’ll be charmed by Strawberry Mansion too, regardless of whether Michel Gondry’s heyday happened to overlap with your internment in high school. I have no evidence that directors Kentucker Audley & Albert Birney were consciously channeling Gondry here, but they demonstrate a similar knack for illustrating fantastic breaks from reality with the rudimentary tools of a kindergarten classroom. Strawberry Mansion is likely too cute & too whimsical to win over all irony-poisoned adults in the audience, but if you can see it through the poetry & emotional overdrive of teenage eyes, it’s a stunning achievement in small-scale, tactile filmmaking.
In the year 2035, a humorless IRS bureaucrat is tasked with auditing the recorded dreams of an elderly artist who mostly lives off-the-grid. He’s supposed to create a running tally of various props & cameos that appear in her dreams, each of which can be taxed for pennies. However, he’s quickly distracted by how much freer & more imaginative her dreams are than his, which tend to be fried chicken & soda commercials contained to a single room (painted entirely pink like the sets in What a Way to Go!). It’s not surprising that his limited, commodified dreams are part of a larger conspiracy involving evil ad agencies and governmental control. What is surprising is the romance that develops between the young tax man & the elderly artist. They flee persecution for discovering the ad agency’s subliminal broadcasts by retreating further into the VHS fantasy worlds of the artist’s recorded dreams, forming a delightfully sweet bond in the most ludicrous of circumstances: demonic slumber parties, swashbuckling pirate adventures, cemetery picnics, etc. The imagery is constantly delightful & surprising, even though you know exactly where the story is going at all times.
At its most potent, cinema is the closest we get to sharing a dream, so I’m an easy sucker for movies that are about that exact phenomenon: Paprika, The Cell, Inception, etc. I’m also always onboard for a psychedelic Dan Deacon score, which adds a needed layer of atmospheric tension here. Even so, Strawberry Mansion joins the rare company of films like Girl Asleep, The Science of Sleep, and The Wizard Oz that feel like totally immersive dreamworlds built entirely by hand. They evoke the childlike imagination of transforming a cardboard refrigerator box into a backyard rocket ship, except that every single scene requires a new arts & crafts innovation on that level – more than history’s most creative child could possibly cram into a single adolescence. No matter how sinister this film tries to make its corporate-sponsored dystopian future (or how grim Gondry tries to make his own doomed relationship dramas), nostalgia for that lost childhood whimsy cuts through. The closest we can ever get back to it—without the aid of movies or drugs—is in lucid dreams.