This quietly satirical and unexpectedly moving debut feature from director and co-writer Christos Nikou, who cut his teeth as an assistant director on Dogtooth, was Greece’s entry for the international feature Oscar at the recent 93rd Academy Awards. A tale of epidemic memory loss, grief and possible new beginnings, it’s a deadpan tragicomedy that mixes the playful and the poignant in a manner as tasty as a spitter – the bittersweet apples treasured by cidermakers as the perfect fuel for fermentation.
Straight-faced Aris Servetalis cuts a mournful figure, his physical presence invoking the joint spectres of Daniel Day-Lewis and Charlie Chaplin. As an outbreak of amnesia rolls across his homeland, his bewildered character, Aris, finds himself unable to remember his name, his occupation or his address. “It happened suddenly to him, like the others,” says the doctor who examines “Number 14842”, before placing him in a programme designed to rehabilitate those bereft of memory and on which his new friend (Sofia Georgovassili) is also enrolled.
To create new identities, the programme’s participants are given a series of quests – instructions for mundane tasks that arrive as Mission: Impossible-style taped messages, requiring photographic proof of completion. From taking a high dive into a pool to attending a fancy dress party and having a one-night stand, the tasks build up an album of “memories”, eerily reminiscent of the faked family photographs owned by the replicants in Blade Runner – imitations of “normal” life. The photographs are taken on Polaroid cameras (the film’s box-shaped world is nostalgically analogue), but there’s a question lurking in the background about the digital images to which we have all become addicted; the cellphone selfies that define who we are in the age of Instagram.
Nikou describes Apples (which in tone is somewhat reminiscent of Lili Horvát’s Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time) as “an allegorical comedy-drama” born out of a personal bereavement, exploring the question of whether we are all ultimately “simply the sum of all those things we don’t forget”. There’s a clear echo of the premise of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in Nikou’s description (he cites Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze and Leos Carax as influences), not least in the growing suggestion that amnesia can be part of an active retreat from intolerable reality.
Throughout, we see fragments of former lives resurfacing, such as in a lovely, heart-breaking scene of people dancing to Let’s Twist Again (“Do you remember when …?”). As for the film’s title, it takes on added significance when a local grocer remarks that our antihero’s favourite fruit is “good for the memory”, provoking a reaction that speaks volumes about his true emotional state.
As with his “Greek Weird Wave” compatriots Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari, Nikou balances profundity with absurdism to striking effect. Scenes of the lanky Servetalis earnestly riding a small child’s bike sit alongside oddball encounters with modern popular cinema, from questions about the logic of horror movies (“when they got to that strange house with the bones and the skulls, why did they go in, instead of running away?”) to the identity of Batman and a hilarious potted plot synopsis of James Cameron’s Titanic – a moment of pure comedy gold.
Yet it’s the eerie mystery of sadness that rings most clearly through Nikou’s film, a meditation on the construction of personality that, like all the best ghost stories, combines wistful melancholia with a hint of wish-fulfilment, of lost souls who, in forgetting, are trying to remember.
• Apples is on Curzon Home Cinema and in cinemas when they reopen