Fingernails, Christos Nikou

Director Christos Nikou Scratches Below the Surface of ‘Fingernails’

Can love be determined by an algorithm? In our interview with director Christos Nikou, he scratches below the surface of his sci-fi romance, Fingernails.

Christos Nikou
Apple TV+
9 October 2023 (LFF)

In 2020, Greek director Christos Nikou quietly announced himself with his debut feature, Apples (Mila). The premise of an amnesia pandemic and the film’s release in the midst of Coronavirus-19 bestowed it with an eerie timeliness. 

Critically applauded for its originality, Apples positioned the director as a potentially distinct and emerging voice. It drew the attention of Cate Blanchett and her production company, Dirty Films, who worked with Christos Nikou on his sophomore feature and English-language debut, Fingernails (2023). Speaking about what drew her interest, Blanchett says in the film’s production notes, “One could reach for phrases like ‘melancholic absurdity’ or ‘alienated winsomeness’—the tone of his movies is hard to define. But whenever I speak with Christos, I feel like I’m inside a deeply serious conversation whilst being simultaneously tickled. I think his films have similar energy.”

Fingernails is set in an alternate reality where newly developed technology can scientifically determine whether two people are in love. The couple each provide a fingernail, and the test produces a positive or negative result. 

Anna (Jessie Buckley) and Ryan (Jeremy Allen White) are happily partnered, reassured of their compatibility, having taken the test. Hired at the love institute, where couples engage in pre-test exercises to tighten their bond, Anna is assigned to shadow Amir (Riz Ahmed), a diagnostician. Neither appears secure in their individual relationships and when they unexpectedly begin to fall in love, they challenge the reliability of the groundbreaking science. 

After Apples the question is whether Fingernails would confirm the director’s reputation as a distinct and emerging voice. Christos Nikou tells me that he didn’t feel any pressure, which was alleviated by what could be described as a compartmentalised point-of-view, or mindfulness – living in the moment. “I left Apples in the past and tried to concentrate on and live with Fingernails 24/7”, he says. “I see every film as my first and my last.”

Listening to Christos Nikou, I recall a conversation with Danish director Joachim Trier, who said that given filmmaking’s economics, a director must be allowed to make a film. Nikou describes seeing each of his films as his first and last, a sentiment that complements Trier’s statement. However, there’s something undeniably sad and motivating about this. Nikou agrees, and instead of talking about himself, he praises Trier’s film, The Worst Person in the World (Verdens verste menneske, 2021), calling it a “masterpiece”. Meanwhile, he shows sympathy for Trier’s English-language film Louder Than Bombs (2015). It may not be Trier’s best film, but it was harshly received. However, it was positively critiqued by PopMatters for its visual poetry. 

There’s an ambivalence in Christos Nikou’s voice. He admits, “I’m very hard on myself when trying to make a film, and it doesn’t work.” One senses his frustration with criticism from audiences and critics when it assumes that the filmmaker is oblivious to their film’s shortcomings. Nikou speaks honestly, dismissing the naïve and preposterous myth that the director is always content with their choices, but stresses the importance of embracing the risk of failure (similarly to romantic relationships). “We need to trust the authors and give them more freedom to create because, right now, we are lacking genuine auteurs in cinema,” he declares before saying this will result in better movies.

At 14, he saw Peter Weir’s 1998 reality television satire, The Truman Show. What struck the young Nikou was its creativity and the balance between drama and comedy. Here we can see the origins of his own auteur’s voice, which emphasises this same balance. Buckley, Ahmed, and White’s performances in Fingernails are dramatic and comedic, with the humour creeping out of a subtle awkwardness. 

Despite their positive results, Anna and Ryan’s interaction feels forced, as if they’re actors who have been given a role to play. That’s not to suggest there aren’t genuinely tender moments between the couple, but the science’s determination that they’re compatible creates unrealistic expectations, even a pressure that they should interact within set parameters. Nikou is deliberately using this form of uncomfortable humour not only for the purposes of balance, but to emphasise that the science promoted by the love institute dehumanises what love is. 

Blanchett’s summary of her experience watching Christos Nikou’s Apples as a deep conversation with a sensation of being tickled is also a good way to describe Fingernails. There is what’s happening on the surface, what’s being said, and then there’s what’s beneath. Nikou shows restraint, encouraging his audience to ask questions and engage in this conversation about love. “Our characters are questioning themselves in this environment. It’s about creating these questions the audience will take away with them, the answers to which might tell them something about themselves.” He admits that he has a reason why he wasn’t interested in giving answers in Apples, nor here. “Answers are constantly changing, so we need to appreciate our journey. Life asks us to follow our instincts, our hearts, and just live.”

“People that know me say, ‘It [Fingernails] couldn’t be more you.’ I’m pleased that I’m honest and sincere about what I am”, he says. “In terms of tone, I’m trying to keep the melancholic smile because the films I want to make aren’t taking themselves too seriously, even though they’re talking about some serious and deep ideas.” 

One might assume he researched memory and love to give weight to the ideas raised in Apples and Fingernails, but he says that his approach is observational. “I try to understand the humans around me, to see how they function in this crazy world.” He adds, “We’re creating a world, but because it’s a character study, we’re digging deeper into the characters as the created world unfolds. We see the world through the characters’ eyes.” 

The essence of Fingernails is challenging the growing belief in this newfound science of compatibility testing. Nikou is essentially creating a reality onscreen that adapts a commonly shared desire to find an explanation or algorithm for love. Yet, early in the film, there are the disappointed singles who envy those who have found their positive match. The science in an alternate reality still can’t manage to erase the disappointment of those lonely souls.

Are they struggling to find love or a positive result? It’s a distinction that suggests the dehumanisation of emotion and connection, replacing unpredictable feelings with a clinical diagnosis. It’s the antithesis of what love is or is supposed to be. Nikou’s film reminds us that love is something we cannot control. The idea that we can understand the mechanics of love and create an emotional utopia free of difficulty and disappointment is naïve. 

It’s not dissimilar to music, and how do you explain why you like a piece of music. It’s difficult because it’s a feeling that words might struggle to express. “I was talking to a journalist who told me he wrote about music before films”, remembers Nikou. “He said it’s much easier to write about films because music is so emotional that you cannot describe it. I think love is the same. You cannot quantify it; you cannot analyse it and say what it is. People are trying to explain everything in this way, and it’s crazy. Technology is pushing us to do it more, but we need to trust our heart more than our mind.”

Christos Nikou, however, expresses a concern that Fingernails has so many layers that it might be complex, but he believes this is the approach for creating something special. “When we finished the movie and showed it to our producers, they told me that the tone of the film is unique, and nothing like it exists right now.” He emphasises that he’s not saying this out of arrogance but a desire to create something unique that he hopes the audience will love – without losing a fingernail. 

Fingernails screened in the ‘Official Competition’ of the 67th BFI London Film Festival. It was released in select cinemas and on AppleTV+ on 3 November 2023.