'Apples' Review: A Pandemic Movie, But Make It Greek Weird Wave [TIFF 2020]

No one needs to use the word "pandemic" in Christos Nikou's "Apples" for the overarching mood of a world rankled by a mysterious, unexplainable illness to come through. Six months of living in coronavirus limbo has been enough to rewire the brain so thoroughly that a jarring, "Children of Men"-style dystopian opener is not necessary to communicate that nature has brought society to its knees. It's just one of the many startling incongruities of Nikou's feature debut that the film feels at once like it takes place in both the recent past and the painful present.

Nikou served as assistant director to Yorgos Lanthimos on his breakthrough film "Dogtooth," and that lineage shows in the dry absurdism of "Apples." The Greek Weird Wave is alive and well in Christos Nikou's hands, and he points to how the national cinema's movement can continue to grow. "Apples" maintains the droll wit and entrancing abstraction of Lanthimos, but the film does not feel quite as drenched in irony. Nikou's storytelling remains deliberately opaque while also leaving plenty of room for genuine emotional connection.

Nikou's off-kilter perspective on humanity jumps out from the film's opening sequence as he positions protagonist Aris (Aris Servetalis) low in the frame, sitting quietly and listening to Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair." It's a visual and sonic callback to Mike Nichols' "The Graduate," though Benjamin Braddock's feelings of isolation will soon have nothing on Aris' experience. A bus driver discovers him asleep at the final stop, unsure of where he's been or where he's going. Aris winds up in a hospital and learns of his twofold tragedies: he's been struck with the mysterious illness that causes amnesia and is among the "unidentified" that no one has come to claim.

With no one and nothing to rebuild his past from, Aris must enter a guided program that will help him tap into his existing memories so he can construct a viable future. Most of "Apples" follows Aris as he dutifully executes the instructions from a cassette player, documenting each successive bit of progress by taking a self-timed Polaroid of the experience. Though the tools he uses are entirely analog, something about his quest feels distinctly of the digital era. Aris bristles against the notion that he must document and share every experience for it to be valid, yet the aides overseeing his recovery insist on the necessity of this component. They promise no end to their inquisitions into his life, an intrusion that proves even scarier than the illness itself. How do you move forward when the only certainty is uncertainty?

The program starts with simpler, physical tasks drawing on muscle memory, like ensuring Aris can ride a bicycle. But they quickly graduate him to the more advanced assignments like socializing and confronting the emotional complexity of mortality. Aris' journey is far from a straight line, and the emotional range can swerve from disorienting to touching to depressing even within the same scene. Servetalis' minimalistic performance gives us so little yet manages to tell so much. If his wistfully reserved work seems distant, that's only so the audience can bridge the gap with their own experiences of trying to move into an uncertain future while only maintaining a tenuous grip on the memory of the past.

Aris is far from a passive spectator moving through life on a miserabilist conveyer belt; at the very least, staccato bursts of off-kilter humor ensure there's never a monotonous sequence within "Apples." The surrealistic environment in which he must try to reestablish an identity does present opportunities for him to connect with happiness, such as his connection with fellow unidentified person Anna (Sofia Georgovasili). They help each other through creating new memories, including one particularly bizarre attempt at parking a car, though it's the feelings she seems to summon with in Aris that make the biggest impact.

As Aris begins to make his most concrete steps towards claiming a future, the potential that his past has not entirely perished reemerges. "Apples" closes on a note of provocative possibility for Aris, raising the prospect our relationship with our own minds might not obey anyone's idea of rationality. It's overwhelming how much emotion Nikou wraps up in the final scene and how little of it Aris can or does express. In other words, it's a lot like the perplexing experience of enduring a pandemic and all its complications.

/Film rating: 8.5 out of 10