Pandemics come in a handful of different varieties — some we accurately diagnose, and some we don’t even notice. A highly contagious outbreak of coronavirus (to pick a random example) leaves behind a trail of bodies that makes it rather easy for right-thinking people to recognize the disease for what it is. Other global health crises, however, can be harder to spot. The ones that poison our mental health. The ones that disguise themselves as progress. The ones that seduce us into forgetting who we are.
Set in an analog and uncertain version of the recent past (or perhaps in a parallel universe where the iPhone was never invented), Christos Nikou’s “Apples” begins in the midst of a slow-rolling plague that spreads mysteriously and leaves its victims with severe amnesia. Details are scant, but the crisis has been around long enough that people in Greece have learned to live around it; the healthy go about their normal business, while the sick are corralled into the “New Identity” program the government hosts at local hospitals and advertises on the radio in between Simon and Garfunkel songs.
It’s not as nefarious as it sounds. In fact, the Disturbed Memory Department is more humane than most Americans could imagine — it’s like a rehab for remembering. Or at least it would be if people could remember anything. Instead, “unclaimed” patients like Aris (Aris Servetalis) are tasked with building new identities, a process that involves following the bizarre instructions his doctors record for him on a cassette tape and taking Polaroids as proof that he followed through on each increasingly specific assignment. Ride a bike. Go to a costume party. Meet a girl in a bar, have sex with her in the bathroom, and then leave without saying goodbye.
If Nikou is never shy about following in Yorgos Lanthimos’ footsteps (the first-time helmer served as assistant director on “Dogtooth”), that signature deadpan strangeness only grows more pronounced as “Apples” starts to ripen. But this dry modern fable is softer and more delicate than “Alps,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” and the rest of its unmistakable blood relatives. It’s hazy where Lanthimos’ work is razor-sharp; vague instead of violently literal. There’s even a twinkly music box-like score that wouldn’t be out of place in a Drake Doremus movie (composer The Boy gilding the images with string flourishes that sound like synapses fusing together).
But if Nikou’s debut seems poised to become the most opaque movie ever made about the mind-obliviating corruption of digital technology — less a screed than a gently urgent reminder to exercise our memories instead of outsourcing them to the cloud — the film, like it’s drifting hero, struggles to forge an identity of its own.
Aris’ participation in the New Identity program will be familiar enough to anyone who’s seen “The Favourite.” He’s bashing his head against the living room wall of his distressed Athens flat the first time we meet him, handsome yet blank in a way that makes it hard to tell if he’s already forgotten who he is. From there, Aris falls asleep on a bus, and wakes up at the end of the route with no idea of where, what, or why he is where, what, and why he is. The authorities know exactly where to take someone in that condition.
The kind but clinical doctors who work in the Disturbed Memory Department insist that Aris’ family will find him soon enough and sort things out, but no one shows up. A taste for apples is Aris’ only connection to the person he was — some things are hardwired, but the tantalizing aftertaste of an unknown past has a way of making people hungry for a satisfaction they may never have. The doctors promise Aris that he can make a new beginning, but the implication is that he has no other choice.
Much of this terse and coiled film is devoted to watching Aris live out that reality, both alone and with other people like him. The script is fractured into cute, largely self-contained scenes that sketch out what life would be like for a man without a memory. None of the exercises that Aris is prescribed seem all that scientific, but most of them are endearing. At one point he attends a costume party with his fellow patients; everyone is dressed up like astronauts and superheroes, but even they don’t know who they are to begin with. Later, Aris visits a strip club and awkwardly asks a topless dancer to pose for a Polaroid selfie so that he can prove he was there.
In the movie’s best moments, the veneer of Lanthimos-like affectlessness that’s layered over Aris’ behavior reflects the sterility of our own social media use — of living in a world where personal identity has blurred into a series of symbolic disguises, and most of us have been conditioned to do things just for the sake of documenting them. “Apples” conveys a sense, palpable but unspoken, that emotion is the crucial difference between data and memory, and distancing ourselves from the feeling of our experiences makes us liable to forget who we are.
At times, it seems as if Nikou is trying to peel back the layers of Lanthimos’ ultra-blunt comic methodology and explore how it reflects our growing inability to feel things, as if the goal-oriented directives of modern living have dried up all the dopamine our brains can produce. The film’s delightful meet-cute takes place at a screening of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” where Aris notices a fellow amnesiac (Sofia Georgovasili) scared out of her mind and hiding under her chair. Later, she tells him the plot of “Titanic,” and admits that it made her cry her eyes out.
Getting to see every movie as if for the first time is something of a silver lining for these lost people who can’t feel anything of their own. Emotional responses — even terror and heartbreak — are what get under our skin and make us who we are. If this Charlie Kaufman-tinged fairy tale has a moral, it’s that people are the sum of the things they feel and don’t forget. Erasing painful memories or living at a remove from our own reality might seem appealing, but that numbness amounts to a kind of self-annihilation.
These ideas bob up and down throughout the short course of “Apples,” and Servetalis’ searching and cipher-like performance suggests a restless internal tension as Aris finds himself confronted by the vague possibility of remembering who he was. Is? But the movie, like its protagonist, struggles to navigate a path through a whole lot of nothing. We’re eventually given hard and clear answers about what happened to Aris before his amnesia, and even what might have prompted it, but it’s hard to elevate a story above the level of parable when its basic conceit prevents the hero from becoming a recognizable person until the final moments.
This is a movie full of lovely and lilting moments that invite you to reflect on the value of your own painful memories, and yet precious little of it is specific enough in a way that makes it hard to forget. Listening to someone relay the plot of “Titanic” is as acutely emotional as it gets. Odd bits stick out here and there — watching Aris dance an eerily slow version of the twist alone in his hospital bedroom suggests all sorts of buried meaning, but hints are all we get. They could belong to anybody. While Nikou skins this story with great tenderness, “Apples” ends without ever finding its core.
“Apples” premiered in the Orizzonti section of the 2020 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.