If you don’t have your memories, then what and who are you? The new Greek film Apples considers that question as a ruthless thought experiment. Unlike Regarding Henry or Away from Her, dramas that deal with memory loss in true-to-life ways, director Christos Nikou does not supply his protagonist with someone who remembers him. No one can cobble together details from the hero/protagonist’s life, leading to a loss you might find in a José Saramago novel. But this is a gentle film—quiet and observant—and instead of existential dread, it arrives at more reassuring answers than you might expect.
Aris Servetalis plays Aris, the hero, a soft-spoken man in his late 30s who lives alone. We see snippets from his ordinary day—he goes for a walk and listens to records—but one night he wakes up on a bus and has no idea how he got there. He cannot remember his name, and has no identification on him. The bus driver tells him to wait, and soon the man finds himself in a hospital. Doctors patiently explain his total memory loss, noting there have been a number of cases like his lately. Indeed, there appears to be an entire hospital wing where patients with no skills or past have no choice but to wait for loved ones to try and collect them. Time passes and no one comes so the man attempts a second identity, forging new memories along the way.
There is a tragicomic undercurrent as professionals test the man’s condition. In one scene, a doctor plays “Jingle Bells” and asks him to look at drawings associated with the song. The man chooses a wedding scene, a kind of deep erasure that makes him both useless and vulnerable. Luckily, he is not brainless, and has the ability to form new patterns. We learn this in a scene where the man develops a strong taste for apples. Could this be some clue to his past, or maybe deeper insight into his new identity? There are no easy answers, so Nikou comes up with a brilliant way to explore the man’s new life. His doctor prescribes him an ongoing kind of homework assignment: a daily life experience that forces him out into the world. Absent any instinct or human connections, he has to relearn somehow.
Apples shoots its subject from a respectful distance, with few cuts or close-ups. It is a shrewd way to get the audience thinking about what happened to this man, and how they might behave in a similar situation. He lacks so much more than an identity. He also forgot his annoyances, biases, preferences, and taste. He has no sense of his tolerance, empathy, temper, or disgust. These things make a person just as match as their home or occupation, but rather than make the man frightened, Servetalis is shy. It’s the right choice: The city churns forward with or without him, so deference is a rational response.
These homework assignments provide the film with its backbone, and also lead to its gentle plot. At a screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a woman (Sofia Georgovassili) approaches him after correctly realizing they’re in the same predicament. They become awkward friends because of shared experience—or maybe inexperience—and together they relearn simple things like how to ask for help. Georgovassili is a good foil for Servetalis. She’s more gregarious and eager, and their contrasts are a crucial way of suggesting who these people were before. Around this point, the man starts to remember things through instinct, although he barely realizes it. He recognizes a dog, and a song on the radio. The film suggests he has a better sense of self, though maybe not in the way he wants.
Perhaps Apples came to Nikou after seeing so many apocalyptic films in recent years. It is easy to imagine an original Netflix movie that is more of a thriller full of special-effects, whereas Nikou offers a more emotionally accurate depiction because he can see the banality that comes with any catastrophic change. (If the pandemic has taught us anything, it has taught us that.) It is not to say, however, that Apples is ever boring. It can be deliberate and quiet, sure, but that is in service of a deeper curiosity that leads to moments of recognizable tenderness and eccentricity. By the time the man learns crucial details about himself, there is the sense this film is more than a “what if” scenario. It could be a how-to guide I hope none of us ever need.
Apples opens at E Street Cinema on July 1.