Prompted to make this sci-fi romance as a way to further explore his own fascination with love, Nikou says, “to be honest, I don’t know what love is. I don’t know if any of us know? But we are always looking for love, even though we don’t know exactly what it is. Love is the most elusive thing.
“I think what we’re trying to say in this film is that love is something that we need to work for – and we need to work more for it on a daily basis,” says the Greek director who got his first break serving as a script supervisor for fellow countryman Yorgos Lanthimos on his 2009 drama Dogtooth.
Fingernails is his second feature and first English-language film, following the 2020 debut Apples.
In his dark new film, Nikou immediately makes it clear that Fingernails is not your traditional romance, teasing at the theme by referencing Hugh Grant movies, Notting Hill in particular.
Jesse Buckley and Jeremy Allen White co-star as Anna and Ryan, a couple who we learn have found true love. How do we know their love is true? It’s been proven by a controversial new technology. There’s just one problem: Anna still isn’t sure. Then she takes a position at a love testing institute, and meets Riz Ahmed’s Amir.
If the film has sci-fi conceits, then it exists in a low-fi world, something Nikou was determined to achieve. “We came up with the timeless approach to the film because for me, the quest for love is timeless – so it’s not set in a specific time. For instance, the last reference in the film is to Notting Hill which came out in 1999.”
By removing all mobile phones and 21st technology from Fingernails, Nikou’s aim was to make a specific statement. “We’re trying to make a comment about technology and how it is approaching love. It’s a completely different experience right now – with many people using dating apps. They’re using their finger swiping right or left in order to find love or a soulmate or find the right partner.
“It’s definitely a criticism of the technology. I have a very old iPhone, so I don’t have a good relationship with technology,” he quips.
“In order to make a comment about that technology, we chose to have only one technological device in the film, which is a [love] test machine. Other than that, there is a complete absence of technology, which I feel is always stronger,” he tells us at the San Sebastian International Film Festival where Fingernails competes in the Official Selection.
“I was single at the time I was writing this, and I was using dating apps all day. I was dating a different girl every day and, in general, over the last few years of my life, I’ve been trying to understand what is love.
“That’s why we made this film – in order to question some things about relationships. But I don’t know if I was thinking of one relationship specifically. I think it was just internal from my experiences before,” he says.
Two of the producers on the film are Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton. Nikou tells us how he formed an unlikely partnership with Australia’s formidable power couple. “It was three years ago, when we were in Venice with Cate, and we decided that we would like to work together. We didn’t have a part for her, so she asked me if she could produce it.
“They helped us create the whole story and they were in the whole process of the film. They were great producers, but also what I love about Cate is that – even if she’s not the most experienced producer – no one cares, because she has the most amazing instinct. And that’s very, very special. She just knows. Once she says something – and I don’t know how she does this – it’s like she just knows,” he says.
Discussing the film’s sometimes gruesome love-test, Nikou understands that it might be disturbing for some audiences. “For the main part, we wanted to create something that makes physical pain equal with the pain of love. And we know that it creates some feelings and emotions and reactions in the audience. But also, at the same time, love is something that most of the time makes you feel a little uncomfortable. We’re gonna unpack this and, yes, it is going to hurt.”
Fingernails is in cinemas 2 November 2023