It opens with the sounds of thumping and a camera tracking through a gloomy, cluttered apartment.
Our protagonist is slowly, rhythmically beating his head against a load-bearing pillar.
A radio suggests a new therapy for the viral, planet-wide outbreak of amnesia. Give up on trying to recover old memories, With clinical help, just start over, make new memories, “manage a new life.”
“Apples” is the debut feature of filmmaker Christos Nikou, who picked up experience as a second unit director for Yorgos Lanthimos (“Dogtooth”) but also Richard Linklaker (“Before Midnight”). There’s a hint of both in this contemplative, obscure and somewhat droll trip into identity and the screwy ways “science” tries to reestablish it, or reinvent it, in this Greek comedy.
Aris Servetalis is our hero. There’s an amnesia pandemic going on all around him, but even without it, we can see just how limited his life is. We see no friends, no relatives. A neighbor’s dog seems to be the only living thing delighted to see him.
One day, he doses off on the bus, and when the driver awakens him, he can’t answer the basics — “What’s your name? (in Greek, with English subtitles) Where do you live?”
The “system” is still functioning, and he’s taken to a hospital. That’s where we see just how little he can retain. He flunks even the most basic short term memory tests.
But the therapy program directors ( Argyris Bakirtzis and Anna Kalaitzidou) decide he’s a candidate for their little “start your life over” project.
He’s assigned an apartment, given a Polaroid camera and a cassette player. The program entails taking instructions from the cassette — going out in public, go places where you can meet people, take pictures of what you do and make a photo album.
New life? New memories.
Find a bike, “try doing a wheelie. No one forgets how to ride a bike.”
Go to the movies. As a revival of a certain “Chainsaw Massacre” picture is playing, that’s his choice. But he’s distracted by the striking stranger (Sofia Georgovassili) who shrieks and cowers behind the seats as if she can’t separate reality from the horrors seen on the screen. It’s like she’s never been to a movie before. Whatever “Aris” is experiencing, “Anna” has it bad.
It’s not until they’re outside the theater and he sees her taking a Polaroid selfie next to the movie poster, just as he’s done, that he recognizes that she’s in the same program as her. And she’s taking it even more seriously.
Thus they meet and meet up, and she drags him along to assorted fresh assignments. Does she remember how to drive? “I think so,” and they’re off. But with the radio on, he can sing along with “Sealed with a Kiss,” in English.
And we sense reluctance to get any more deeply involved with her on his part. He’s hearing “use her” instructions on his tape. No doubt she is, too. He doesn’t want to be her “assignment.”
Maybe this “new life” isn’t all that? What’s going on? Let’s just say the dog knows.
Nikou, credited as co-writer as well as director, keeps the mood quiet, sad and almost somber. But there’s a wink in here somewhere as “Apples” — which takes its name from a purchase Aris makes and the shopkeeper’s question, “Have you ever had tastier apples?” — is making a commentary on how disconnected modern life is.
The picture’s a bit dry and too quiet for my taste. The puzzle at its center is funny and intriguing, and hardly enough to drive the narrative.
The tapes instruct recipients to visit dying people in the hospital, befriend their families and even attend their funerals. That could be a comment on the basic courtesies and empathy of life that our logged-on but checked-out era is missing, although we never see or hear a cell phone.
Aris wasn’t in the best place before his amnesia. You wonder if he needed this socialization therapy — sexist and self-serving as it can be — with or without the disease.
And you know who hasn’t been isolated, changed for the worse and made lonelier by modern life? Let’s just say that sometimes he’s on his leash, and sometimes he isn’t and leave it at that.
Cast: Aris Servetalis, Sofia Georgovassili, Anna Kalaitzidou and Argyris Bakirtzis
Credits: Directed by Christos Nikou, scripted by Stavros Raptis and Christos Nikou. A Cohen Media Group release.
Running time: 1:30