Where or When—films about the past and future
Apples & Dreaming Walls
Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Christos Nikou, director and co-script w/Stavros Raptis
Starring: Aris Servetalis (Aris), Sofia Georgovasili, Anna Kalaitzidou
It’s hard to be more au courant than Apples, the Greek existential character study that is the first film by Christos Nikou, a former collaborator of Yorgos Lanthimos (now world famous since The Favorite). Nikou has crafted a fable, a thoughtful thriller, around a pandemic in which vast swaths of the population have succumbed to amnesia. As Apples demonstrates, you don’t have to titillate audiences when they’re already intrigued by dark thoughts of Covid and Alzheimer’s. We’re already intrigued by the premise and want to know where Nikou’s script and direction will take us.
Nicou wastes no time introducing Aris, the kind of attractive middle-aged Everyman who has featured as the protagonist in novels since Camus, Bellow and early Handke and in art films since Antonioni and early Godard. Aris doesn’t say much but he oozes integrity as he questions his surroundings and the forces that seem to be entrapping him. He plays with the local dog, and is friendly but reserved with his neighbours, before going on a bus ride where he falls asleep. When he’s awakened by the driver at the end of the line, Aris professes to remember nothing.
Through Aris, we see how the government is functioning during the crisis. On the whole, they’re not bad. Aris is subjected to a series of memory tests, which he fails, while efforts are made to contact his relatives, as he had no I.D. on him when he was found on the bus. Eventually, it’s decided by the woman who is handling his medical case that he can slowly reintegrate into society since no one has shown up to claim him. Aris is given a stipend and an apartment as well as daily instructions, which he hears through a cassette audio player he listens to every morning. Slowly, he gets to know people and the community, including a greengrocer, who sells him produce, especially his favourite, apples, which he consumes avidly until told that it helps jog the memory. Then Aris stops—and it takes a long time to find out why.
Even existential scenarios need a plot, which Nikou provides through Aris’ gradually more intriguing relationship with Sofia, an attractive woman, and also an amnesiac. When they go out dancing, she’s impressed with his joyful gyrations to Chubby Checker’s Let Twist Again. She also enjoys him singing along to Brian Hyland’s rendition of the sweetly romantic ballad Seal it with a Kiss. Though we don’t see it, the two have sex in the woman’s toilet—and it’s only later that we realize that each was acting less out of impulse and more from instructions from their medical mentor.
One of the oddest elements of Apples is its vague timelessness. No one has cell phones. Aris and Sofia receive instructions from an old piece of technology, a recorder. And they both seem to react viscerally to songs from 50 years ago. Not only are we in a time in the future that doesn’t exist yet, but the past also seems to be different. Where or when are we?
Nicou has crafted a lovely film much in keeping with European art cinema traditions. The mise- en-scene is exquisitely crafted and the cinematography is beautifully rendered. Aris Servetalis is superb as the enigmatic lead and Sofia Georgovasili is lively and charming in her—sadly—much smaller role. I’m pleased to warn you that there is a surprising plot twist, the kind you never saw in Camus. It offers a frisson to the film and will surely please audiences.
Even if the unusual narrative shift didn’t exist, the thoughtful and stylish Apples would be worth seeing. No, it’s not a Tom Cruise film and it definitely doesn’t fit into the MCU blockbuster series. Doesn’t that make you happy right away?
Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel
A film by Amélie van Elmbt & Maya Duverdier
80 mins, Belgium/France/The Netherlands/Sweden/USA, 2022
Featuring: Merle Lister Levine, Zoe Serac Pappas, Nicholas Pappas, Rose Cory, Susan Kleinsinger, Joe Corey, Gerald Busby, Skye Ferrante, Bettina Grossman
“I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
You were talking so brave and so sweet,
Giving me head on the unmade bed,
While the limousines wait in the street”—Leonard Cohen
Manhattan’s Hotel Chelsea was the stuff of legends way before Leonard Cohen met Janis Joplin conjugally and poetically in the early 1970s. Mark Twain, O. Henry and supposedly Oscar Wilde spent time at the stylishly constructed building around the turn of the 20th century not so long after it was launched as one of New York’s private cooperatives in 1884. When the co-op failed, it became a hotel in 1905 and acquired a reputation as the place where bohemians and artists stayed, particularly after Dylan Thomas drank himself to death there in 1953.
The young Belgian directors Amélie van Elmbt & Maya Duverdier’s dreamy, poetic documentary about the Chelsea, Dreaming Walls, is woefully lean on the specifics of the hotel’s legendary status but it does offer a recording of the great poet declaiming:
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
If the Chelsea, the elegant but decaying edifice on 23rd Street in Lower Manhattan, had a heyday, it was after Thomas’s demise. Poets, filmmakers, painters, musicians, novelists and dancers moved or spent time in the Chelsea during a quarter of a century, which began with Thomas, Beat icon Allen Ginsberg and abstract painters Larry Rivers and Jackson Pollock in the Fifties, and led to Andy Warhol, Nico, the Superstars and the Velvet Underground ensconced there in the Sixties, making films and music, while Shirley Clarke shot underground films and videos in the penthouse and Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey in his room. It then moved into a more decadent rock star period in the Seventies including Dylan, Jagger, and Patti Smith, heading to the violent denouement of the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious killing his girlfriend Nancy Spungen in a hotel room, the punk brutal act of 1978. The entire period was a violent, poetic outburst of poetry, sex, film, music, and transgressive art.
Here’s the sad news about Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel. I’ve just told you way more about the hotel than you’ll get from the film. Amélie van Elmbt & Maya Duverdier have made a documentary about the Chelsea that is less about the famous stories and more about gentrification, nostalgia and the rights of arty Zoomers to live out their last days in a place they love.
When van Elmbt and Duverdier arrived in Manhattan, the Chelsea had already been sold and was in the process of being renovated and transformed into a luxury hotel. It was years after the glory days of not only the hotel but the downtown Manhattan scene. What the directors encountered was a building being cleaned up of its unruly, rebellious artistic past and turned into a structure fit for millionaires with a relish for history. Rather than dealing with that story, which is being played out in cities from San Francisco to Vancouver to Boston to Toronto, they have made their film about the ones left behind.
When they showed up at the Chelsea, van Elmbt and Duverdier found it hard to get into the complicated scene, which involved the hotel being rebuilt, with old tenants bought out and others fighting to stay. Construction teams dominated the site, and it was hard to get in and out of the hotel. Happily, they met Merle Lester, a former dancer, who had been in the Chelsea for decades and introduced them to other denizens including the stylish Pappas couple, who were still living in relative luxury, fighting for tenants’ rights and vowing to stay. Gradually, they met others including the painter Susan Kleinsinger, the conceptual artist Bettina Grossman, and wire sculptor art-maker and writer Skye Ferrante.
Dreaming Walls moves between verité scenes of the Chelsea’s holdouts, mainly old and all feisty, and poetic evocations of the hotel’s past, with imagery of Nico, Edie Sedgwick, Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, William Burroughs and so many others appearing as ghosts projected on the walls. This is, after all, the place where Warhol made the underground film classic Chelsea Girls, where Madonna staged her Sex photobook, where Nico sang Chelsea Girl with the Velvets.
There’s an archival scene in Dreaming Walls where the great writer and composer Virgil Thomson grumps about the fact that he’s probably been in the elevator with famous young people but hasn’t been introduced. The former collaborator of operas with Gertrude Stein, the film The Spanish Earth with Ernest Hemingway and classic documentaries for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal died at his home in the Chelsea in the late Eighties having lived there for nearly 50 years. It’s amazing to see Thomson and imagine the conversations that took place at his apartment with Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, Leonard Bernstein and so many others.
Sadly, that scene is an outlier in a film that doesn’t give the viewer the true sense of the history of the Chelsea. What van Elmbt and Duverdier did is lovely: a moody look at elderly artists trying to keep their home late in life. It’s a film about artists and the cruel fate of so many living in this time of gentrification. Dreaming Walls isn’t the film about the Chelsea I’d like it to be but it’s a sincere effort that deserves to be seen.