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▶ Apples is streaming on Curzon Home Cinema from 16 April.
Christos Nikou’s Apples opens with a montage of pictures showing a bourgeois apartment’s empty interiors. Even if these shots – a ruffled pillow, a mug on a messy table, a bed, a closeup of a lacy dress hanging from a cupboard door – are not strictly stills (trees viewed from a window can be seen swaying slightly in the breeze) they are certainly still lifes, conjuring the absent inhabitant of a space through what has been left behind. Or perhaps they are more like snapshots in an album, forming a composite picture of a life as yet unseen.
Every cut between these images is punctuated by low thudding bangs, which are finally revealed, after the film’s title has appeared in stark white on a black background, to be the sound of the bearded protagonist (Aris Servetalis) rhythmically beating his head against the apartment’s bedroom wall before he sits, staring sadly at the double bed.
We do not yet know who he is, but already it is clear from this kaleidoscope of impressionistic images that he is an empty shell of a man, caught in a deep sense of alienation, grief and despair that permeates the very fabric of his own comfortless home. Even the confining Academy ratio that Nikou has adopted for his film serves to frame the protagonist as someone trapped within his own narrow horizons, unable to see the bigger picture beyond. His aching desire to escape both his circumstances and himself will propel the film’s narrative.
Apples is very much preoccupied with the (re)construction of identity, and with the recording of life (or a semblance of it) in snapshots. Topically, the film takes place in the middle of a new epidemic – an unexplained condition which, like the apocalyptic virus in Claire Carré’s Embers (2015), leaves patients suddenly and permanently unable to remember anything about themselves or their former lives. Soon the protagonist has joined their ranks, after he wakes up confused on a bus at the end of the line, and is taken by ambulance to the hospital’s ‘Disturbed Memory Department’, where, without any ID on him to establish who he is and unclaimed by any friends or relatives, he is placed in the ‘New Identity’ programme, to “create new experiences and memories”.
Settled by his neurologist handlers (Anna Kalaitzidou, Argyris Bakirtzis) in an apartment, he must perform regular tasks in accordance with tape-recorded instructions that he receives every day in the mail, and take a Polaroid selfie as proof that he has finished each mission. The album that he builds from these photographs is not just a physical log-book of progress for his doctors to monitor, but also a record of new experiences from which he can refashion a personality.
Yet while some of these tasks are mundanely everyday (ride a bicycle, go to a nightclub, see a film), others are more absurdly idiosyncratic or just plain intrusive, reflecting the personal preoccupations of the neurologist who has set them – and any notion that these missions are designed to give our protagonist his own particularised identity is undermined by the fact that he encounters other amnesiacs (including one played by Sofia Georgovassili) working through the exact same checklist of activities.
All this is played very deadpan, as cipher-like characters drift through often surreal scenarios, their lack of the usual affective response wryly defamiliarising everything that we see. Here Nikou satirises the banality of the human condition by reducing to a standardised bucket list the experiences (joining a protest, crashing a car, a one-night stand) that we imagine constitute our very individuality.
Yet at the same time there are hints right from the outset that the main character, far from having succumbed to the amnesiac disease, is merely pretending to have it, so that, as we follow him rebuilding a parody of life for himself, we are also ourselves trying to reassemble the past on which he has turned his back. In this way the film’s black, blank comedy is always offset by a sombre wistfulness.
The film is named for the apples that the protagonist at first devours with gusto – but stops eating after he is told by a greengrocer (filmmaker Babis Makridis) that apples are good for memory. For this is a man who wants to forget – and it is only in playing an amnesiac and re-experiencing love, loss and death as if for the first time that he can both return to a home that tragically cannot ever be the same again, and take another bite of life’s bittersweet fruit.
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Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.Find out more and get a copy