Apples movie review: Greece's official Oscars entry fashions itself as the study of a cipher
Apples keeps it light and avoids being overwhelmed by its film-awareness.
A burly guitarist stands at the corner of a street trying to master the notes of 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.' A man passing by listens to him intently and drops a coin in appreciation of the effort. The passer-by knows a thing or two about starting from scratch, for he is one of the thousands in the city to be diagnosed with amnesia, an epidemic that seems to have neither cause nor cure. A lucky few have family members who come to pick them up from the hospital, countless others are simply labelled “unidentified”: individuals with no identity or social network to speak of.
The passer-by is the unnamed protagonist of Apples, Greek filmmaker Christos Nikou’s compelling, if somewhat-mannered, directorial debut.
One of the “unidentified”, he is convinced by the doctors at a neurological hospital to sign up for their “New Identity” programme, which aims to help these blank slates start life anew. Installed in a sparsely furnished apartment, the man receives regular “tasks” from the chief doctor via audio cassettes that he must complete and furnish proof of with photos. The tasks are increasingly convoluted and psychotic, instructing the protagonist to crash a car, jump from heights, and worm his way into the household of a recently deceased.
The element that fuels the narrative of Apples, and sustains our curiosity, is the mystery around the man’s relationship to his past, and the uncertainly about the direction of his future. The character wanders across playgrounds, theatres, discotheques, strip clubs, pubs and parking lots, completing eccentric assignments that take him vaguely through the signposts of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. There is a sense that he is undertaking these tasks with the sole purpose of converting them into polaroid souvenirs. A pointedly millennial condition, this obligation to create a new album of life events, to prove that he has lived these moments, supplants the experience of these events itself.
The pathos of the lead character’s attempts to narrativise his life is undercut by hints that he may not entirely be the tabula rasa that we take him to be. From early on into the film, we are made privy to incidents that reveal that the man might be consciously running away from a past and is, in fact, not amnesiac. His resistance to being identified at the hospital, his “stealing” of symptoms from other patients and the rare instants where he lets his guard down suggest that what the man may be suffering from is not forgetfulness but memory.
Part of what is admirable about Apples is that, far from intending to cheat the audience as to the truth about the protagonist’s condition, it proposes the character’s dual being as authentic in itself.
Nikou’s film is about grief and its repression, and it submits that the desire for a spotless mind is as inextricable a part of human existence as the will to forge a personal history.
To this end, the director refuses to let us into the protagonist’s mind and plays instead on his inscrutability. The character, who understandably dresses up as an astronomer at a costume party, is never quite anywhere.
Played by a bearded Aris Servetalis, who cuts the figure of a stoic philosopher parachuted into modern Athens, the protagonist says very little, expresses even lesser. Even when he sings or dances, he looks like he is executing an idea of song and dance. Nikou, who dedicates the film to the memory of his father, instead fixates on shots of the actor eating, sitting or staring into the distance. Looking at him biting into one apple after another, we wonder if anything at all lies behind his cryptic, silent stare.
Apples is thin on narrative incident or exposition, and fashions itself above all as the study of a cipher. As is de rigueur in cinema of this kind, Nikou shoots in shallow-focus, pivoting his compositions on Servetalis’s sculptural face and upper body. The actor is consistently de-centred in the frame, reflecting the character’s loss of centre and the feeling of being never blending into the landscape. Outside of another “unidentified” woman (Sofia Georgovassili), whom the protagonist meets during one of his tasks, there are few full-fledged characters, which encourages Nikou to stay away from shot-reverse shot patterns.
Contemporary Greek filmmakers operating in this narrative mode can barely escape comparisons to Yorgos Lanthimos, with whose idiosyncratic, high-concept works Apples has considerably in common. Besides borrowing his lead actor from Alps (2011), Nikou channels his compatriot in his taste for absurd plot developments, unorthodox shot composition, clinical indoor settings, and handling of secondary characters, who are suitably caricatured in voice and gesture to the benefit of the protagonist.
Nikou, though, pitches his film at a level above realism — the viewer is simply expected go along with the premise, which may not stand logical scrutiny — but several notches below Lanthimos-like parable. He accentuates the incongruence by a calculated anachronism: his film looks by turns contemporary and futuristic, but is strewn with props that are 40 years old. While such preconceived quirks as the 4:3 aspect ratio of the film have by now become veritably academic, Apples keeps it light and avoids being overwhelmed by its film-awareness.
Apples was Greece's official entry to Academy Awards 2021. It is currently screening in the Viewing Room of Dharamshala International Film Festival from 2 to 8 April.
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