I’ll be honest with you, dear reader (as always). One of my greatest fears in life is memory loss. When one loses their memory, they don’t just lose their own sense of self, but also the identities of others. Interactions are eroded over time. Relationships are lost to the past. Tender moments are quietly forgotten. It’s a terrifying prospect to lose your own recollections in life.
If you’ve suffered the misfortune of watching someone you love lose touch with their realities or slowly forget the people closest to them, you’ve known the terror of discovering how one’s entire life and past history can — both gradually and instantly — be erased and dissolved, as a clouded haze of their history fails to connect, and their reflections are left searching for answers that have been taken or distorted by disease.
It’s a terrible way to leave this world, your mind collapsing into itself, and it can be harder for those who lose their memories and identities earlier on. The tragedy of one mind’s deterioration can often be felt and grieved by many, though it’s also a battle that’s often fought alone, in the dark, without any clarity founded. A mind is our most powerful tool and our greatest burden.
Apples, the feature directorial debut of Christos Nikou, isn’t a horror film, though it does grapple with something that’s terrifying to think about. In the midst of a nationwide pandemic, where people instantly and inexplicably suffer from acute cases of severe amnesia, Number 14842, a.k.a. Aris (Aris Servetalis), is the latest patient who winds up in the Disturbed Memory Department, a mental rehabilitation center for people who cannot remember their identities, their past, their loved ones, or where they live.
Gaunt, bearded, and wide-eyed, Aris quietly attempts to recall anything that might’ve occurred in his previous life, though he constantly draws a blank. Through the encouragement of his therapists, Aris enters a societal re-entry program where he comes into contact with Anna (Sofia Georgovassili), who is also an amnesiac trying to piece her life together. Together, these wayward individuals embark on what’s essentially a second childhood, one that can be both unsettling and comforting in equal measures to watch throughout the course of this perplexing, intriguing, and dark dramedy (it’s hard to properly categorize where this film fits, genre-wise — that’s a good thing).
There’s a constant, gently engulfing melancholy felt throughout Apples — particularly toward its final moments. As we’re in the midst of our own pandemic, where the world becomes emptier as we attempt to make sense of our surroundings, which are now both familiar and strange, it’s intriguing to watch a film that indirectly articulates something that’s so hard for all of us to explain right now. Our shared fears and intrigue, lost in a confused fog of unanswered questions and inexplicable circumstances, are understandably grave and horrifying in these new, day-to-day realities.
But Apples is a surprisingly soft movie, filled with muted fascination and evergreen curiosity about its little ecosystem of characters. While the severity of this dour situation isn’t lost on us or the on-screen personalities we follow, Apples never wallows in pity or any longstanding remorse for their tragedies. Instead, Nikou remains interested in the nature of self-discovery and personal growth, often wondering with both humor and intellect how we become accustomed to the uncertainties of our unpredictable realities. The film itself never directly insinuates who may or may not be to blame for this widespread memory loss. Instead, the first-time director wants to explore the process through which we can try to decontextualize and re-contextualize a world that never gives easy answers to looming and constantly difficult questions.
Previously a second assistant director on Yorgos Lanthimos’ excellent 2010 film, Dogtooth, Christos Nikou’s sense of style is intentionally evocative of the Greek Weird Wave. The deadpan approach, dry/morose humor, disaffected dialogue, the use of empty space as visual metaphors for our vacant characters — oh yes, you better believe it’s all there. But Nikou offers a distinctly gentler touch than the filmmaker he emulates. While the humor itself can sometimes be black, there’s apparent love and compassion for the well-being of these uniquely lost souls, maybe more so than other filmmakers who’ve followed this mold. There are signs of hope throughout. It can be music or movies or dancing or, yes, apples, but the disenfranchised world of these memory-whipped characters isn’t without the possibility of renewed potential. The circumstances can be consistently bleak, but we’re so often focused on the humanity found therein that we don’t get lost in it.
This careful approach showcases a new filmmaker with a delicate eye and a sharp handling of tone and style. While Apples can sometimes be a little too ambiguous at times for its own good, the refined method of easing into the acute perspective of our characters makes for an inviting viewing experience. This is a kinder, more accessible environment than we’re used to seeing in our regular lives, but Nikou suggests that even in the midst of tragedy, life for us can be this way, too, if we’re maybe a little more understanding and considerate of ours. Yes, it’s a “hippie love” way of looking at the world, but it’s to the credit of Nikou that it doesn’t feel too detached from reality, even when he dives more into his world’s absurdism.
In a curious way, Apples is better than most films I’ve seen at communicating what it feels like to live on the spectrum, wandering in a world where everyone seems to know things about societal norms that you are trying to process and understand, even when — as is the case with this film — it’s eventually clear that other folks are just as lost trying to understand it all, too. Especially as we move forward in uncertain terms, we’re all dealing with a bit of a learning curve. It’s easy to be spiteful, but Apples suggests that the best way we make peace with difficult circumstances is if we approach it with compassionate hearts and open minds. The world isn’t going to get easier, but we can make it a little safer if we take the time and patience to make it a little better.
But it should be stressed that Apples, for all its moments of encouragement, isn’t a fully optimistic tale. To suggest more would spoil how bittersweet the ending becomes — if bittersweet is the proper word. Our minds elevate us and disillusion us. A bunch of chemicals determines how we cope with a vast and inexplicable existence. And when it’s lost, it’s more than simply a dissolution of one’s livelihood. Yet, in the midst of such heartbreaking truths, Apples suggests that life can be approached with a delicate balance of care and consideration, even when we lose a bit of ourselves (and hopefully gain something else) in the process. Maybe it’s for the best that we don’t spend too much time thinking about it, but instead, we just do our best to live with it. However we can, of course. It’s never easy to reflect on these types of things.