Christos Nikou couldn’t have anticipated the almost unrecognizable world into which he would be releasing his debut feature, “Apples,” but it’s a testament to the strength of this lonely and aloof tragicomedy’s central allegory that it adapts so well to our pear-shaped times. What might have been the latest oddity of the Greek Weird Wave — or else a surreal collection of live-action “The Far Side” cartoons — instead feels soulfully relevant as reality aligns with the speculative world Nikou imagined.
Tipped to play the fall-fest trifecta of Telluride, Venice and Toronto, “Apples” takes place amid what sounds suspiciously like a pandemic — an unexplained spike in amnesia cases — although the scientists and media are predictably unclear about what’s happening. This isn’t the near future but a sort of eerily simplified recent past, a nostalgically analog civilization before cellphones and social media, when human connections had to be forged the old-fashioned way. Something is selectively wiping people’s memories, although in certain cases, it can be a blessing to forget, like clearing the cookies from one’s browsing history.
Not everyone’s as keen on their recall as you-know-who, whose peculiar “person, woman, man, camera, TV” refrain suggests an ideal tagline for “Apples.” The person in this equation is played by bearded, blank-faced Aris Servetalis, a sullen Athens man who can’t seem to remember his name. Early on, he’s discovered sitting vacant-eyed on the bus, evidently a victim of this spontaneous amnesia phenomenon. He has no identification, nor any loved ones to claim him, so the authorities take him to the nearby Neurological Hospital, where doctors working in the Disturbed Memory Dept. have developed an experimental technique to help patients begin a new life.
The approach operates like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in reverse, and indeed, there are traces of Charlie Kaufman’s influence on Nikou’s understatedly absurdist script: The doctor prescribes the man a series of tasks — riding a bike, fishing for carp, paying for a lap dance — and a Polaroid camera with which to chronicle them. The resulting snapshots offer a wry commentary on 21st-century selfie culture, documenting what happened without any trace of enjoyment or enthusiasm. Will doing these things spark his memory? They’re certainly funny-sad to witness, like a Kafka character performing a silent-film comedy routine, as he awkwardly struggles with various situations.
As part of the program, our protagonist also gets a new apartment, which feels as forlorn and empty as the inside of his head. There’s more going on up there than lead actor Servetalis lets on, although it’s more effective for audiences to be left to speculate as he sits, eating an apple or staring off into the distance, like one of those melancholy humans lost in thought in an Edward Hopper painting.
At times, the man’s solitude is interrupted by stabs of recognition — not flashbacks (the movie remains stubbornly exterior to his experience throughout), but behavior that suggests some of his memories might still be intact. Of course, he’s actively building new ones through the hospital’s “New Identity” program. During a recommended outing to the cinema, he encounters a fellow patient, a woman (Sofia Georgovasili) who’s a few steps farther along in her recovery. She invites him to assist in her activities, which has the peculiar effect of allowing someone with no memory a chance to sample his future, since he’ll be getting the same assignments a few days later.
Will they fall in love? The question hovers as Nikou shows these two damaged people getting to know each other. The woman seems more responsive, more alive and open to the world, although there’s an explanation as to why the man appears so depressed, so reluctant to form connections. It’s treated as a twist, and sure enough, the movie deserves a second look with this new information in mind — unless your memory is good enough to replay it all in your head.
Nikou comes to this project having worked as an assistant director on Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth” and Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight,” but his voice feels distinct, more mature than those found in the disruptive debuts of his Greek peers. “Apples” has a ruminative quality that’s fairly uncommon in modern cinema, leaving space for audiences to project themselves into the man’s situation. But it also hides key information in the space between cuts, misleading us in ways that are consistent with the characters’ unreliable state of mind.
Overcast, underpopulated and squeezed into a subconsciously oppressive 4:3 frame, the movie isn’t meant to be realistic (authorities would surely have some other way of identifying people struck by amnesia, whether by fingerprints or DNA). Rather, it tickles the imagination, inviting us to consider the prospect of being given a new beginning, and whether starting from scratch would be such a terrible thing.