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Yorgos Lanthimos’ dark absurdist comedy Dogtooth in 2009 ushered in the so-called Greek Weird Wave, which blossomed at least partly out of national chaos triggered by the country’s financial crisis that same year. Christos Nikou, whose background includes working as an assistant director on that film, establishes himself as an exciting new voice in the movement with his assured feature debut, Apples. Simultaneously deadpan and dour, somber and surreal, this is a haunting meditation on the manipulation of memory to anesthetize pain, crafted with a meticulous attention to visual and aural composition that makes for arresting viewing.
The central allegorical element of a dystopian environment in which standardized experience is offered as a remedy for societal malaise specifically recalls Lanthimos’ The Lobster. But Nikou, who co-wrote Apples with Stavros Raptis, also cites the work of Spike Jonze, Leos Carax and especially Charlie Kaufman as influences, touches of which are apparent in the film’s creation of a world both commonplace and alien. The unnamed protagonist could almost be a postmodern Buster Keaton, played in a wonderful performance by Aris Servetalis that seems affectless but slowly uncovers concealed layers of feeling.
The originality of the premise, the uncanny timing of its wry grounding in a pandemic that’s steadily reshaping society and the soulful observation of how we process loss and move on with our broken lives should ensure that this Venice, Telluride and Toronto selection finds a responsive art-house audience. Although it takes place in a distinctly analog time, Apples also represents an amusing commentary on our age of social media saturation, when for many addicts, the obsession with documenting their lives on Instagram or Facebook virtually eclipses the importance of the actual experience.
Servetalis’ character, a handsome, middle-aged man with a tidy professorial beard, is first seen banging his head against a wall in frustration. He sits morosely in his large empty apartment listening to the disembodied voice of an audio recording detailing a “New Identity” program being conducted by the Disturbed Memory Department of the Neurological Hospital. He dons his overcoat and steps outside, affectionately patting a neighbor’s dog in the doorway. He then boards a city bus and is found by the driver at the end of the line in a state of bewilderment, clueless about his destination.
The script shows deft economy in conveying the phenomenon of the widespread virus causing instantaneous memory loss to people at random, its only other symptom a pain in the center of the head. But the origins and specifics of the pandemic become unimportant in a story more intimately focused on the human condition through the existence of a single individual.
Given that the man is carrying no documents, he is photographed at the hospital along with a large new intake of similarly confused patients, each of them assigned a number. That identification process sets up the Polaroid as an important motif, its format echoed in the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio that adds to the striking intensity of cinematographer Bartosz Świniarski’s expertly framed visuals. Days pass and the man remains unclaimed by relatives; his doctor (Anna Kalaitzidou) explains that he may have no family, possibly doesn’t get along with them or that they too have “forgotten.” With zero cases recorded of patients regaining their memories and no progress shown in the man’s elementary recall tests, the doctor suggests an alternative therapy that will allow him to start fresh by creating his own memories.
He is installed in a modest but comfortable residential apartment and given a cassette player with recorded instructions delivered in the sonorously authoritarian voice of the program’s supervising medic (Argiris Bakirtzis). It’s in this bizarre lesson plan, dubbed “Learning How to Live,” that Apples most reveals the Lanthimosian influence. The man is required to complete a series of tasks and take a Polaroid to document each one, adding the snapshots to a photo album.
The assignments begin innocuously enough with riding a bicycle. But they soon progress into more disconcerting territory, like getting a lap-dance at a strip club, watching a horror movie and crashing a car. While following this program, the man meets a fellow recovering amnesiac (Sofia Georgovasili) at a Texas Chainsaw Massacre showing. The woman is a few steps ahead of him and asks for his help completing some of the exercises. But confusion between the dating rituals of ordinary life and the prescribed therapy of an institutionally supervised program soon muddies their budding connection.
Awkwardness springs up in particular after a night at a dance club, one of the movie’s best scenes, in which the man begins moving to “Let’s Twist Again,” at first in a desultory fashion and then with increasing gusto and flair as muscle memory appears to kick in. Throughout the film, brief flashes of engagement — his recollection of the lyrics as he sings along to “Sealed with a Kiss” or his transfixed attention to a couple in love on a black and white television in an electronics store window — hint either that he could be regaining memory fragments or perhaps that he’s actively chosen to forget.
The title comes from the favorite fruit he peels and savors, and his regular trips to a local shop to stock up on apples suggest a routine that predates his new beginning. But the wrenching reconnection to his former life comes only after a demanding personal challenge late in the program that prompts emotional investment in a dying stranger. In those final scenes, the depths that have been quietly churning beneath the almost comically subdued surface of Servetalis’ characterization are revealed with penetrating impact.
Nikou strikes a pleasing balance between ironic observation and melancholy reality, subtly modulating the tone with his use of a pensive score by Alexandros Voulgaris, who records as The Boy, and with dense soundscapes of traffic and birdsong. The clinical detachment of the doctors is played to arch extremes, and odd dreamlike interludes like a costume party where the man pads around in an outsize astronaut suit convey an off-kilter world. Pain and isolation, it seems, are essential parts of our existence, and accepting them can be both traumatic and curative.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Production companies: Boo Productions, Lava Films
Cast: Aris Servetalis, Sofia Georgovasili, Anna Kalaitzidou, Argiris Bakirtzis
Director: Christos Nikou
Screenwriters: Christos Nikou, Stavros Raptis
Producers: Iraklis Mavroidis, Angelo Venetis, Aris Dagios, Mariusz Włodarsk, Christos Nikou
Executive producer: Nikos Smpiliris
Director of photography: Bartosz Świniarski
Production designer: Efi Birba
Costume designer: Dimitra Liakoura
Music: The Boy
Editor: George Zafiris
Sound designer: Leandros Ntounis
Casting: Stavros Raptis
Sales: Alpha Violet, CAA
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