I don’t remember if I like them.
Amnesia is a tragic ailment. To wake up and find yourself unable to remember your name or any other aspect of your life is nothing short of a nightmarish scenario. We fear diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s precisely because losing our memory is akin to losing our very identity and by extension our sense of purpose. So it’s only natural to see the conceit behind director Christos Nikou‘s and co-writer Stavros Raptis‘ film Mila [Apples] as one steeped in horror. It’s unknown why everyone is falling prey to severe bouts of amnesia, but the numbers are growing so fast that doctors have begun initiating programs that will allow patients unclaimed by worried family members to simply abandon the past and embrace a future wherein they are born anew.
But who’s to say there aren’t some who see what’s going on and wish it could be them? What about those people who are already grieving unspeakable tragedy and thus peer upon the forgetful as having been given a gift? You bet they’d snap their fingers and let all that pain wash away. If you’re going to find yourself alone anyway, why not embrace the freedom of doing so without the anguish lived lives inherently provide? It’s an easy choice for Nikou’s lead as played by Aris Servetalis. Whatever it was that he hopes to escape has yet to be revealed, but we see the sorrow in his eyes as he bangs his head against the wall. We recognize the malaise-fueled desperation that drives him to play pretend.
Nikou and Raptis aren’t trying to hide this fact. Aris asks the man sharing his hospital room how he feels and proceeds to parrot it back to his doctors so the ruse can be as airtight as possible. And who knows? Maybe the poking and prodding will distract him long enough to actually forget. If his mind is devoted to the sole task of being an amnesiac, he just might be able to sleep at night without the memories of what’s missing haunting him. So when his doctor (Anna Kalaitzidou) approaches him with the idea to join a program she and her colleague (Kostas Laskos) have coined “New Identity,” he jumps at the chance. If the process gives amnesiacs a fresh start, it might work for him too.
This is where notes of Nikou’s previous collaborator and famed Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos come through. Apples is more authentically grounded in reality than the high concept behind The Lobster, but it’s no less surreal or absurd in practice. The doctors leave a cassette tape in Aris’ mail each day with a new task for him to perform. At first it’s little things like ride a bike or go to a costume party. Soon it escalates into violent acts (crashing a car) and sexual encounters (a one-night stand) before moving towards emotionally heavy journeys like befriending a terminal patient and watching them die. And all the while Aris is asked to document his success with a Polaroid picture to be placed in an album for the doctors’ perusal.
Other people pop-up with cameras partaking in the same prescribed treasure hunt meant to fabricate memories all human beings apparently need to become well-rounded individuals ready to assimilate back into society. Aris even sparks a friendship with one such woman (Sofia Georgovassili). They help each other out with tasks and try imagining the reasons why they’re able to do certain things for which they have no recollection (at least when it comes to her since he’s constantly slipping in ways that her amnesia prevents her from noticing). Being with her ultimately lifts his spirits to the point where staying in character becomes harder and harder. But if happiness means remembering, he wants none of it. He’ll even stop eating apples (his staple) upon discovering they heal the mind.
The result is often funny thanks to every weird mission being portrayed with an absolute deadpan tone. Aris borrows a child’s bike to ride with knees high and a severe stare. Sofia endures the terrors of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre from the movie theater floor, kneeling behind a row of seats so the imagery remains out of sight. It’s even funny when Aris loses his stoicism to sing along to a song on the radio or dance the twist at a nightclub. We smile because these actions are incongruous to his goals and yet involuntary effects of the electricity of the moment that prove he’s helpless from stopping his body from taking over. These brief instances reveal how sights, sounds, and memories are indelible to our existence.
That’s when the melancholy officially sets in. This is a very quiet and somber film despite the straight-faced humor and as such contains the power to deliver a heartrending climax laying everything on the table. Memories aren’t merely a part of our lives—they make us who we are. You can neither erase bad times without also losing the good nor recall good times without also falling prey to the bad. Hardship and elation go hand-in-hand because they literally give meaning to the other. Love is only worthwhile if loss exists. Joy is only desired if pain reminds us why. Maybe forgetting would be easier, but it’s not a luxury we can afford if the cost leaves our cherished dead without anyone to render them immortal through remembrance.