Just what we needed: there’s a new pandemic. This one doesn’t kill, though, at least not in any conventional sense – it just leaves an increasing number of people unable to remember who they are. You might be walking down the street, driving your car or just taking a nap, and suddenly you don’t remember anything. From one moment to the next, you – that is, the person you were – is gone.
Okay, technically this isn’t quite what is happening in Apples, by writer-director Christos Nikou, who’s worked as a Second Unit Director on Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight and Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth – and Lanthimos is probably not a bad frame of reference for this film. The amnesiacs of Apples still remember the language they’ve learnt, they understand that they need to breathe and eat to survive, but anything more than that? It’s gone. And it’s happening to more and more people.
As the film begins, we met Aris (Aris Servetalis), who lives on his own in Athens. We see him pass what seems like an unremarkable day, during which he encounters others struck by this pandemic of forgetting. He walks past them, because what can he do? Passers-by call ambulances that take the amnesiacs away, but even doctors can’t do much for them. Then Aris falls asleep on a bus, and when the bus driver wakes him up at the end of the line, he sees yet another one of them: the ones who have fallen prey to the disease.
Aris is taken to a hospital, where he undergoes various tests, and everything points at the same conclusion: his memory is gone. He is another one of those human blanks, so he is assigned a number. However, he is also approached by a doctor who tells him that there is a new programme designed to… something. Is it supposed to trigger memories? Form new ones? It isn’t entirely clear, but the amnesiacs are given tasks, small and everyday at first but eventually more involved and even intense. Ride a bike and take a photo of yourself. Crash a car into a tree and take a photo of yourself. Go to a club, dance with a stranger, have a one-night stand, visit a stranger’s funeral and cry… and, yes, take a photo of yourself. There is something both funny and poignant about these pupils in how to be a human being earnestly doing their lessons and then commemorating them with a selfie, even if there’s also a touch of social satire in how it only seems to be the selfie at the end that makes the experience real.
The gentle absurdity of what we’re watching, and the deadpan tone: both of these show Apples to be somewhere on the same family tree as Lanthimos’ films, though the latter is placed on an infinitely more gnarled, thorny and twisted branch of the tree. Nikou’s film is more melancholy and considerably less cruel, but it may also lacks Lanthimos’ ability to see it through, to take his ideas to their terrible conclusion. Nikou’s film is much less exacting. We see individuals affected by the spread of amnesia, and everything suggests that this is more and more widespread – but the world we see doesn’t seem to be all that different from our own in the end. Certainly that is intended: Nikou is making a film about the world we live in, the society we’re all a part of, but its purpose remains diffuse.
And this is where it’s impossible to continue without giving away a fairly major spoiler – though I’d argue that the film hints at it fairly early and eventually makes it entirely clear, before we even get to the end. Aris, the amnesiac we’ve been following? He isn’t actually. He’s not forgotten a thing. He’s chosen to join the ranks of the forgetful, because it gives him a chance at a new start – or so he thinks. He expects amnesia to reset himself and his life, but the past keeps creeping in. A neighbour’s dog runs up to him, tail wagging, and he calls out the dog’s name. When the local shopkeeper who sells Aris his apples asks where he lives, he first mentions his old address and then corrects himself. He watches the true amnesiacs for symptoms he can copy. There is a growing dissatisfaction to him that isn’t there with Anna (Sofia Georgovassili), the amnesiac he starts to hang out with – and possibly develop feelings for, feelings that he doesn’t seem to be entirely comfortable with.
Apples ends on a note of equanimity, perhaps even solace: Aris rejects his new, amnesiac life and returns to his former existence – which he had tried to leave behind because it was too painful. In a way, his journey seems to have been a shortcut through those famous five stages of grief: when we meet him, he embraces denial, which brings him to a place of low-key depression, so finally he arrives at acceptance. He cannot remake himself, because we are who we are because of our experiences and our memories, and no list of tasks designed to create a new set of memories and therefore a new identity can replace these.
And that’s my problem: Apples is baffling, it is amusing, it is poignant, it is all of these things – but just up to a point, and in the end these things seem to have served a story that isn’t far removed from so many other stories of grief and solace. The film’s weirdness, which is what makes for most of its personality, doesn’t seem to be much more than a veneer – and the amnesia pandemic is a device to talk about a man who tries to escape the pain he is. Trouble is, the film’s conceit is more interesting than the story it finally serves. I was interested in the story developing between Aris and Anna, but in the end there’s no space for her in the story Nikou ends up telling. I don’t want to compare the film too much to Lanthimos’ works, but with the latter, the films never stop being unsettling. They can’t be solved. They’re not a neat but finally paper-thin metaphor for an emotional journey. Apples disappointed me, because the thing it seemed to be about was much more interesting and engaging than the thing it actually ended up being about. Which, ironically, may well mean that, before long, I won’t remember most of Apples. At best I’ll keep the selfie of myself and the film’s weirder facets. The rest I’ll forget.