INTERVIEW: Christos Nikou on his tender sci-fi story ‘Fingernails’

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Physical attraction, lust, comfort, or security could easily confuse one into love. They are often reasons for a couple to resort to long-term relationships or monogamy, wedded together by fears or insecurities or social impositions that incite individuals to team up and play ‘in-love’. Christos Nikou’s story responds to this devastating perplexity with a simplified solution. What if a machine could scientifically test whether two people are in love or not, by analysing their fingernails?

Performed by a character-committed cast, the story follows Anna (Jessie Buckley) training to be an instructor at the Love Institute, where she gets to meet and fall for the chief ‘master of love’ Amir (Riz Ahmed)-who, incidentally, has not survived his own love story- while tiptoeing around her established relationship with her proven-in-love partner Ryan (Jeremy Allen White). All of them individually respect a romantic bond and, in extension, they desire all the hints of emotions love can arouse. It is a triangle of disposable love. So fitting for a story advocating true love. In its a nearly sci-fi and clearly absurd world, love is quantified, measurable, and achievable, beyond the chemical connection or the passion two people can evoke between each other. A concept that needs a complete detachment from stereotypes that inspire intangible and assertive romantic connections (e.g. ‘Notting Hill’ or ‘Casablanca’).

‘Fingernails’ is evidently targeting the operating conditions and propositions of dating apps. For those who have been using love apps, this story will strike familiar chords, maybe attuned or overlooked. For the rest, probably, it will bring a sort of hopeless reassertion that love is a mystery and by no means justifiable. In any case, it is certain that this film will slow you down by the peremptory absence of technological devices (for once, no smartphone mediates the relationships between the characters) and warm you up a bit with its eye-pleasing colours. Yet, for a film with such a universal, self-rolling theme, it is arguable whether the dialogues support satisfactorily the sci-fi qualities of the proposed logic or avail the potential wildness that surrounds the story. 

Naturally, the film is tainted by (mild) stilted expressions, often contributed to the main ambassadors of the retained Greek Weird Wave (aka Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari). Which does not come as a surprise, as Nikou’s previous film, ‘Apples’ (2020) set a straightforward deadpan tone in responding to the emotional turmoil—although the Athenian scenery was the predominant factor to grease an introspective, quirky narrative. This time, the Greek director resorted to an international production, aiming for a perspective clean from space and time traits. With Marcell Rév leading the cinematography and Cate Blanchett in the invaluable support of the production, ‘Fingernails’ toured major film festivals around the world, and now it is heading to the digital theatres by Apple TV+. Christos Nikou took some time to share some of his thoughts with us.

I would like to focus on the main theme of the film, the uncertainty of love. To which you respond with the objectivity technology has brought into our lives and the idea of knowing for fact whether two people are in love or not. Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems that you maintain a critical eye on how technologies can interfere with interpersonal insecurities. What is your take on a larger scale? What was the process of formulating and developing your idea?

We were trying to understand what love is. Love is the most elusive thing. You cannot analyse it. At the same time, it is so fascinating, and we all need to feel it. I think that with the extensive use of technology and the internet, especially within dating apps, people are trying to find answers, even before they meet a person. They would swipe right or left, with the finger (or the nail), in order to find the perfect match. But love is not an algorithm. Of course, there is this uncertainty around it, but I feel that, at the same time, love is the most instinctive thing. We just need to follow our instincts, because we would never be able to know exactly what love is. What we are also trying to show in the film is that love is not something that you just have to prove, as you would do with a wedding ring that you put on your finger. But love is something that you need to work on every day. It is the only thing you need.

In your script, you have some challenging moments for the characters. We see couples undergoing some preparational tasks with the help of the instructors, which gives the impression of the hard work needed to reach love. I see it as a layer of critique, maybe towards the workaholism of today’s mainstream lifestyle. What was your intention?

We tried to create all these different tasks and activities for these couples in order to connect more. In a way, it was also to present the stereotypical approach to love. For example, French is considered to be the most erotic language, so we need to sing in French. Or that rain makes people feel romantic. Or that a couple has to stay underwater, to lose their breath while looking at each other. Some of them are based on facts like, for example, that people are not looking at each other enough anymore; they would go out to restaurants, and they would spend their time looking at their cellphones. It is also rare to remember the smell of the person next to you. I think we need to pay a little bit more attention to love. And work a bit more.

Jesse Buckley and Riz Ahmed in Fingernails

For a film that is stepping into a sci-fi approach, it is astonishing the lack of technology and the stereotypical representation of it. There is this general retrospective atmosphere, with warm colors instead of cold, and a complete absence of smartphones. What world did you want to create?

Love is timeless, so we wanted something completely timeless as well. The last reference that we have on the film is ‘Notting Hil,’ a film set in the ‘90s (Hugh Grant is the only guy who knows what love is). This timeless feeling was also for a direct comment about how technology has affected us. We believe that it is much stronger to have a complete absence of technology, besides the one and only device that appears, which is the test machine. People who enter the room of this machine seek to find answers about themselves and their own emotions. We have created a ‘what if’ world, where everything is on your mind. 

Besides the number of allegories you have used, you follow some stereotypes of rom-coms, as you said, for example, that the French language can give a romantic tone. Or you used some film references that are deemed romantic, such as ‘Notting Hill’ or ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. You seem to resist any new take on representing love in cinema. I am thinking of the example of ‘Love’ by Gaspar Noé, which is solely based on the physical connection. 

Of course, I understand the approach on the physical connection in order to make a film like ‘Love.’ Personally, I believe that most of the time sex scenes turn to be very fake, so I am not a big fan of scenes like that; although for us, it would have been very easy to have sex scenes in this movie. At the same time, we didn’t need to include any, because it is not about sex. The movie doesn’t talk at all about how sex changes the way we feel about love. It is about how we understand the person next to us, and how and why we want to be with that person. So we wanted to play more with the mind than the body.

This is your second feature film, following ‘Apples’ (2020), which was a low-budget film, with of course no discount on the quality delivered. What teachings did you keep from that experience of making a successful film on your own terms, to transition from a low-budget to a higher one?

To be honest, there are not a lot of differences. You always need a little bit more money, whether you have a lower or bigger budget. When you’re making a film of a bigger budget, you are working on a different scale, and you do have more expenses. The only thing I can say is that this film gave us the opportunity to dream a bit more. For example, while making ‘Apples,’ we had a lot of limitations. Limitations in terms of, for example, how we could move the camera and the equipment we could have for it. In this one, we had more opportunities, and I would like to continue making movies in this way. 

For a Greek filmmaker, and in the larger scheme of things, an independent East European creator, why was it important for you to address the subject of love in the English language and across borders? Here, I am thinking as well of the attention Greece has gained over the last years as a shooting location for Hollywood films. 

First of all, I believe that there is only one cinematic language. But I didn’t want to make this film in Greek, because I think we made a universal story, as love is universal. All the references we have in the film are universal as well. Since we had the chance to make it in English, and also to work with these amazing actors, I saw it as an opportunity to create something more accessible for a larger audience. In the case of ‘Apples,’ we sold the film in more than 70 countries, and we screened it almost everywhere in the world. There were countries with such a small amount of admissions in the theatres. I think it is not only because of the pandemic but also because it was in Greek. Unfortunately, people are not used to going to movies that are not in their own language or not in English. I want to make movies that the audience can see. I want to make films where people will feel things about it. That’s why I make movies, for the audience. 

Speaking of universal languages, I am curious about your attraction to long party and dance scenes, as we saw both in ‘Fingernails’ and ‘Apples.’

There is a connection between the two films. I feel that ‘Fingernails’ is the other side of the same coin as ‘Apples.’ At the same time, I love dancing scenes. I had a collection of all the dancing scenes that I love from the cinema. Especially the ones that came at a time you wouldn’t expect. I feel that when people are dancing, especially the characters, they are forgetting about everything. They are just expressing themselves with body language. I love this idea so much, and I wanted to have it again in this film. Actually, I know I will have it in almost every film I will make. I don’t think that I can direct something without dancing scenes. 

Fingernails’ is in select cinemas, and streaming globally on Apple TV+, from November 3rd.

Drama, Romance, Sci-fi | US/UK, 2023 | Director: Christos Nikou | Writers: Christos Nikou, Stavros Raptis, Sam Steiner | Stars: Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed, Jeremy Allen White, Luke Wilson | Cnematography: Marcell Rév