We do not yet fully understand how memory works. Why do certain moments in our lives stick in our memory while others do not, why do we unintentionally fabricate memories, why do we forget certain film plots and endings? Memory has been explored in films like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to name just a couple. Memory and film go together. Director Christos Nikou’s debut film Apples examines the human condition by way of two of its most basic components—memory and identity.
The film opens with a repetitive thudding sound. We realize it is our protagonist (Aris Servetalis) banging his head against a wall. A few scenes later he rides a bus. At the end of the bus route the bus driver asks him if he knows where he wants to go. He has no idea. He seems to have lost all memory of who he is. No identification is found on him and he ends up in a hospital ward specialized in cases of amnesia. In a very Kafkaesque scene, he is assigned a bureaucratic identity—patient 14842. 14842 knows that without a proper name/identity he cannot obtain a passport or even be hired for a job. No friends or family claim him.
Apparently, 14842 is one of a growing number of cases in a sudden outbreak of amnesia in Greece. Hospital officials decide 14842 is a perfect candidate for an identity reintegration program by which amnesiacs follow orders from a pre-recorded training program that sets them on a path toward beginning a new life. The tapes command 14842 to ride a bike, have a one-night stand, and even to join a protest—the type of “memorable” life experiences that forge one’s identity. 14842, curiously enough, faithfully follows the tape’s orders. We are left wondering if he really lost his memory or if there is something else going on with him.
To Nikou’s credit, Apples manages the difficult trick of balancing between serious meditation and absurdist deadpan. This balance is made possible by Aris Servetalis’s wonderful performance. If the direction, the deadpan humor, delivery of dialogue, and overall look of the film seems very much like a Yorgos Lanthimos film, then you are not off. Nikou served as Lanthimos’s assistant director on Dogtooth. If there is any fault to be found in Apples, it lays precisely in Lanthimos’s influence. If one did not know who directed Apples, one’s first assumption would be Lanthimos. One wishes that Nikou would have given us a bit more of his own vision. Thankfully, the Lanthimos style is one that is endlessly watchable.
Apples scores high marks in different categories—drama, comedy, arthouse. Apples may not be allegorical and should be taken at face value; however, it works best when one plays with its allegorical possibilities. Is Nikou making a statement about how ideology works and how we unthinkingly obey it so as to find a grounding in our identity? Is he making a statement about societies not remembering trauma in a substantive way? Is he making a statement about contemporary Greece and its short historical memory, a statement about our contemporary societies and their lack of long-term historical awareness? We do not know; but that is fine.
This uncertainty makes Apples all that much more of a good watch. A very real-life possibility hovers over all of us at the present moment. Will we remember this pandemic experience—all the trauma felt by many, the inequalities it exposed in their starkest form, and the political failings it exposed—once we fully conquer Covid. Apples sets you on a path toward asking these questions.
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