Greek director Christos Nikou discusses his topical debut feature, which follows the aftermath of a pandemic that infects a city with amnesia – here, he explains why social media reflects that state of being already
Filmmaking is a form of voluntary amnesia. It’s about inventing a fictional world, escaping from reality, and stepping into that fabricated environment with a handful of actors and a unionised crew. At least, that thought occurred to me when watching Apples, the esoteric, deeply moving debut feature from Greek director Christos Nikou. In the accidentally topical black comedy, a pandemic is sweeping across Greece and infecting a percentage of the population with amnesia. Of course, it’s tragic to lose one’s memory, as if your brain were a Google Doc that could be accidentally overwritten. But for a select few, amnesia offers a clean slate and a chance to rebuild: it’s possessing the hard-earned wisdom of adulthood, just without the trauma or heartbreak suffered along the way.
Nikou, 37, was inspired to write Apples following the death of his father. During the grieving process, the director pondered a core dilemma of losing a loved one: what if he could forget it all? “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of my favourite films,” Nikou tells me over Zoom, from Greece, in March. “Charlie Kaufman’s a genius. When I was dealing with grief, I was trying to understand how you can erase something that hurts you. I was trying to understand how people can forget so easily, and why people behave like amnesiacs. So I transferred those thoughts into a story about a virus.”
Apples was shot pre-COVID, though still taps into the stranglehold of an invisible illness. On the streets of Athens, there’s no telling who, if anyone, has been infected by amnesia. The film’s unnamed disease isn’t airborne, so any masks are metaphorical. Yet confusion permeates through the air. Aris (Aris Servetalis) is discovered on a bus, without ID, unable to remember his name or destination. Admitted to a hospital, the blank-faced man is kept overnight in the hope he’ll be collected by a friend or relative; after remaining unidentified, he prepares for a second stab at life.
While Aris lacks a past and arguably a personality, the character keeps the audience engaged with bemused, deadpan reactions to each step of his “Learning How to Live Your Life” programme. Moreover, Servetalis is a playful performer whose knack for physical humour meant he starred in two Yorgos Lanthimos dramas, Kinetta and Alps. As Aris, he transforms the act of eating an apple – slicing slabs off with a knife, then chewing melancholically – into revealing his soul’s inner core. It recalls how, in Possessor, Andrea Riseborough’s recognisable apple-biting methods give away whose body she’s secretly inhabiting.
“(The actor) Aris performs in a very minimalistic, subtle way,” Nikou says. “So I asked him to watch some Jacques Tati, and two movies with Jim Carrey, The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine, to create the body language.” On set, Nikou would blast Billie Holliday in between scenes, believing the singer’s voice would trigger hidden depths within Servetalis. “I was trying to play with Aris’s own memories and feelings, to make them come on screen.”
Like Kaufman’s similarly memory-obsessed i’m thinking of ending things, Nikou’s film is squeezed into a boxy, 4:3 aspect ratio that comically accentuates the empty space above. As a result, Aris often feels imprisoned inside the frame, especially in POV shots that deliberately obscure pathways on the left and right. At times, the camera’s stillness even echoes the precise cinematography of Stanley Kubrick, although that would be like comparing Apples with A Clockwork Orange. The more relevant name appears to be Lanthimos.
Nikou started out in filmmaking as an assistant director and script supervisor on Lanthimos’s Dogtooth in 2009. While Nikou went on to be, for instance, the assistant director on Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, it’s Dogtooth that shares considerable traits with Apples. The affectless dialogue. The bleak, philosophical conceit. The two films even have a producer in common. However, Nikou disagrees with the comparison. “Not at all,” he says. “Yorgos’s cinema is different from what I’m trying to do. The most common thing is the (Greek) language.”
“Most conceptual stories are dystopian or futuristic. But I learned from Charlie Kaufman how you create a conceptual story with humanity” – Christos Nikou
Nikou believes that the key figure behind the Greek Weird Wave is actually Efthymis Filippou, the non-celebrity who wrote or cowrote Chevalier, Pity, and nearly every Lanthimos movie. “Efthymis is a great writer who uses allegories and writes in a very symbolic way. But, again, his approach is darker and more comedic or sarcastic. I feel Apples went in a more tender way.”
Instead, Nikou cites The Truman Show as “the movie that inspired me to be a filmmaker”, Roy Andersson, Leos Carax, and Kaufman’s entire filmography. “Most conceptual stories are dystopian or futuristic. But I learned from Charlie Kaufman how you create a conceptual story with humanity. And Leos Carax? He’s a filmmaker who loves cinema. There are so many scenes in his movies that you can put in a list of your favourite scenes ever. But I don’t know how he inspired Apples.”
The Carax namedrop makes sense when considering how Aris rebuilds a new identity. Under guidance from doctors, Aris re-enters society by constructing a photobook of fake memories. He rides a bike, has sex with a stranger in a public bathroom, and attends a fancy dress party in an astronaut costume. Each activity is an assignment that he commemorates with a Polaroid. Like Carax’s Holy Motors, it’s partially an excuse for a series of wild, evocative, cinematic images, albeit with Aris placed sullen in the centre – even when receiving a lap dance.
The irony is that memory loss creates uniformity, not fresh, new individuals. Case in point is Anna (Sofia Georgovassili), another amnesiac who’s a few steps ahead of Aris in the programme. She runs through the exact same activities, creates the exact same memories, and will, presumably, become the exact same person, just with a different four-letter name beginning with “A”. Any remnants of their past personality (Anna remembers she can do handstands; Aris knows the words to “It Started with a Kiss”) are stamped out by the “How to Live Your Life” exercises. Nikou acknowledges that he’s satirising internet culture and groupthink mentality.
“Social media has totally changed our way of living,” the director says. “We imitate things. We take selfies in order to upload them into a digital album, to prove that we have lived a life. At the same time, it’s not living a life – it’s only wanting to prove to others that we have lived a life. It’s very scary.” But isn’t Apples, in a way, a very elaborate selfie? It was inspired by his own life, then publicly shared with the world?
“For sure, it’s a personal story. The script came out of me. It’s like a baby you’ve created that other people watch.” Then why dismiss the pleasure others get on social media from publishing photos and short films? “But I feel that…” He smiles, not willing to die and take a selfie on this hill. “You’re right. Maybe. But I feel that movies are a little bit more interesting than some videos on TikTok.”
“It’s more an allegory about society. The movie will play exactly the same in the pandemic, or two years from now. The subject matter of memory is timeless” – Christos Nikou
When Apples premiered last year at the Venice Film Festival, Cate Blanchett was so blown away that she immediately asked to meet with Nikou. She agreed to support the film’s Oscar campaign with online Q&As (Blanchett says she speaks to Nikou every day) , and signed up as an executive producer. In January, it was announced that Blanchett’s company Dirty Films will produce Nikou’s second feature, Fingernails, a sci-fi he’s written with his Applescowriter Stavros Raptis and playwright Sam Steiner. It’ll star Carey Mulligan and shoot later this year.
According to Deadline, Mulligan will play Anna, a woman who “secretly embarks on a new assignment working at a mysterious institute designed to incite and test the presence of romantic love in increasingly desperate couples”. This raises many questions – is the female lead of all his films going to be called Anna? – but he’s reluctant to reveal too much. “It’s a movie about love. Love, somehow, is missed in the world we’re creating. I don’t know if I can say more.”
I ask if Mulligan was cast because of Never Let Me Go, an existential romance about clones in search of love. Nikou shakes his head. “Never Let Me Go – great idea, great novel. Not a great movie. It was more what she did in An Education, Drive, or Shame. She’s a great actress who can do anything. I don’t understand why in the last 10 years she’s mostly done period-dramas. I feel she gave the performance of the year in Promising Young Woman, where she did something totally different, and I’m sure she’ll be perfect in Fingernails.”
When forced to elaborate on Never Let Me Go, Nikou explains that he adored Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel but that the film lacked heart. “It was like most conceptual stories. They’re trying to do something conceptual that doesn’t go deep into the emotions. You’re not connected with the film. And it’s always difficult to adapt a novel.”
Nikou, too, is receiving offers of book adaptations and “strange scripts”, but for the next few years, he’s fully booked. “I would like to develop my own stories. The idea is that my next project after Fingernails will be a movie with Cate Blanchett as the main star.” As for whether filmmaking is like voluntary amnesia, he says, “I’ve never thought of that. It’s a nice question, but no. I’m not escaping. I cannot separate filmmaking from my life. It’s how I communicate to people.”
Perhaps it’s that personal touch that means Apples carries more emotional resonance than, say, when a director is hired to adapt Never Let Me Go. Even without the pandemic storyline, Apples is haunting, universal, and surprisingly hopeful. Really, it’s about the aftermath of a virus. “But I don’t feel that the movie is about a pandemic,” Nikou says. “It’s more an allegory about society. The movie will play exactly the same in the pandemic, or two years from now. The subject matter of memory is timeless.”
Apples is streaming at Curzon Home Cinema from May 7, and will be released in cinemas when they reopen