Apples boasts a rich starting premise, but too often undermines its conceptual potency with obvious punchlines and lazy sentimentality.
What would society look like if amnesia occurred with the frequency, unpredictability, and suddenness of something like a car accident? This is the high-concept starting point of Greek director Christos Nikou’s debut feature Apples, which unfolds in an Athens where ambulances are routinely called in to deal with memory loss, and where an entire bureaucratic system has been established to deal with afflicted citizens. One such unfortunate is a bearded, unnamed forty-something played by Aris Servetalis, who wakes up at the end of a bus line not knowing who he is or where he’s going. After a few weeks at a medical evaluation facility, he joins the city’s “New Identity” program, intended for those whose families have not come to take them home. Having forgotten his past, Servetalis’ sad-sack solitary must now navigate an uncertain future.
If that broad description recalls the work of Yorgos Lanthimos, this is no coincidence: Nikou worked as a second assistant director on Dogtooth, and Apples, like so many of Lanthimos’ films, uses its speculative, reductio-ad-absurdum setup as a vehicle for social observation. The government doctors-cum-handlers draft a list of activities intended to give their amnesiac patients a sense of normative experience — Servetalis’ character is instructed to see a movie, get a lap dance at a strip-club, dive into a public pool, and attend a costume party, among other things — which of course only lay bare the absurd assumptions that undergird the notion of “normal” behavior. (The title refers to the protagonist’s predilection for apples, though it also brings to mind the Garden of Eden’s forbidden fruit, and thus the constructed nature of what is considered good or evil or just socially acceptable.) Nikous understands the inherent comic potential of his material — though as his directorial touch is far less acerbic or confrontational than Lanthimos’, Apples skews closer to a conventional sketch comedy than to a film like The Lobster, with its bifurcated structure and behaviorist wit. In itself, this is no great fault, and to his credit, Nikous builds his debut to a conceptually potent (and potentially heartbreaking) final scene. But despite the richness of his starting premise, this first-time director too often falls back on tired, obvious punchlines and lazily sentimental touches. For a film so explicitly concerned with the question of starting anew, Apples too often comes across as a case of unexplored possibility.
Originally published as part of Venice International Film Festival 2020 — Dispatch 1.