Any film about a mysterious malady sweeping the globe is bound to look timely through the lens of the here and now. But the droll, Greek, half-comic Twilight Zone allegory Apples wears its topicality unintentionally. Shot slightly before the global outbreak of COVID-19, this first feature from writer-director Christos Nikou operates through pure, unhappy accident as a premonition of how life with the virus has turned out, two-plus years into a pandemic with no end in sight. It captures, eerily and specifically, the way that so much of the world has almost resigned itself to the viral threat, accepting it as a new normal.
The fictional disease of Apples attacks only the mind. It’s transmissible amnesia, robbing the infected of long-term memories. Early on, we see a man sitting on a curb, the door to his nearby car wide open. “Wait here,” a bystander tells him when he confesses ignorance about how he got there. It’s an instruction everyone’s become used to issuing — the official protocol when you stumble upon someone afflicted with this bad case of forgetfulness.
Aris (Aris Servetalis), bearded and haunted, awakes on a bus to find himself among the cognitively rebooted. His name, his occupation, where he lives — it has all disappeared into the mental ether. Unclaimed by any loved ones and in possession of no identifying documents, Aris is assigned a number and remanded to the custody of the Disturbed Memory Department, a wing of the so-called Neurological Hospital. Here, he’s enrolled in a program designed to, essentially, reteach him how to live. Through a series of cassette tapes with daily instructions, like “ride a bicycle” or “go to a strip club,” he’s offered substitutions for the memories he’s lost. If our identity is shaped by our experiences, can a new one be forged through a bucket list of tasks?
Aris, whose enduring taste for the titular fruit supplies the film its title, staggers through his regimen in a lobotomy-patient daze. The faint absurdity of the program, codifying spontaneous pleasures into a self-help routine, betrays that Apples isn’t quite set in the world as we know it. Where it really takes place is Yorgos Lanthimos Land, that alternate dimension of poker-faced absurdism governed by the warped mind behind The Lobster, The Favourite, and Dogtooth. Nikou served as assistant director on the last of those darkest of dark comedies, an experience that evidently proved quite influential. Carefully shot in the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, his first stab at a movie of his own is essentially a kinder, gentler, sadder variation on his fellow Greek director’s twisted portraits of society’s cruel design.
At this point, Nikou lacks his mentor’s precision. His sensibility is a touch more sentimental, ballasting the awkward alien chitchat—here justified by the premise of personalities wiped completely clean—with an ever-present ruefulness. Still, what Apples is after is certainly in the same bizarro-world ballpark as Dogtooth and The Lobster: A satire of social conditioning, of the way our lives are shaped by rules or plans made by others. The film’s critique extends to a light jab at social media’s role in blueprinting existence. Part of the New Identity program, after all, is the insistence that Aris photographically document each new benchmark, snapping Polaroids of his progress like the quintessential head-damaged hero of memory-loss cinema, Leonard Shelby. Can we truly live if we’re always angling for the perfect shot, turning every day into an opportunity for selfies?
Still, Apples is too subdued, too committed to its sustained note of sad-sack deadpan. to ever transform into a screed. The film takes its tonal cues from the foggy melancholia of its protagonist, a husk of a man by design. It’s hard not to wish, occasionally, for the film to break out of its dutifully maintained torpor, maybe to get at some feelings more volatile than a pod-person acceptance of going totally tabula rasa. Wouldn’t it make you angry and scared to entirely forget who you are, even if you didn’t know what you were missing about yourself? At a certain point, the emotional flatline of the film begins to feel like a failure of imagination, settling for a consistency of tragicomic mood over the messier possibilities of the conceit.
Nikou does have one complication up his sleeve — the question, again à la Memento, of just how involuntary Aris’s condition really is. As he begins to pal around with a fellow victim of the disease, the possibility of romance arising, evidence mounts that his memories may not be entirely gone. Are they recoverable? Or is there a more obvious explanation here, linked to the life Aris has lost? Maybe, depending on your circumstances, forgetting everything would be more of a gift than a curse. After the last couple of years of mass death and loneliness, that’s a notion many in the audience might find plenty persuasive.
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