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Fingernails: a timely new sci-fi about love and AI, starring Jessie Buckley

Riz Ahmed and Jeremy Allen White also feature in Christos Nikou’s new feature, which is ‘about how human we are, and how much we are letting AI decide about us’

From the first experience of seeing a film by Greek writer-director Christos Nikou – his 2020 film Apples was his debut – you get the sense that this is a filmmaker with a beautiful sense of both the cerebral and the tender. That movie, starring a wonderfully interior performance from Greek actor Aris Servatalis, is a low-key science-fiction story very much grounded in our reality about a plague of amnesia – and how one learns to live in the wake of such a loss.  “I love humans,” Nikou tells Dazed during the London Film Festival, by way of describing his writing process. “I think all of us are victims, desperate people, trying to find answers,” he says.

Now, Nikou is back with his second film, Fingernails, an equally low-key sci-fi grounded in modernity, and sharing with Apples its analogue sensibility in spite of being set in an unspecified future. This is Nikou’s first film in English, and its cast is a veritable murderers’ row of talents: Jessie Buckley as Anna, a young woman in a long-term relationship with her boyfriend Ryan, played by The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White. They live in a world where the invention of a ‘Love Test’, a machine which tabulates – own to percentages – how much mutual love exists in a romantic relationship.

“For the last two years of my life, I’ve been trying to understand what the fuck love is,” Nikou says, of his inspiration for the story. “I don't know why you can’t fall like in the past, and I am always fascinated by people around me using all these dating apps – swiping right or left with their fingers and their nails – in order to find the ‘perfect’ match. They’re letting an algorithm decide about them, and then on who is the right person. Which for me is almost crazy,” he says.

The test in the film, conducted under lab conditions, involves the painful removal of a single fingernail from each party, and depending on its results, has driven an obsession with quantifying how much love is enough; it’s caused divorces, pushed people together, and has allowed for the Love Institute to begin popular courses in order to increase couple’s chances of ‘passing’ the test with flying colours. When Anna gets a job at the institute and is mentored by the quietly intense Amir (Riz Ahmed), they work together on conceiving and executing a series of love tests, from the absurd to the sweet. “We tried to go on a range from something really silly and something really stereotypical to something very deep. So there are stupid ones like how rain is meant to make you feel romantic or how French is the most romantic language. But then there’s one – if I could do one, I would do the smell one,” he says, referring to a scene where blindfolded lovers can identify each other by scent. Slowly, Anna and Amir fall for one another, and the waxing and waning of romance – and how to define a complex love like this – transcends testing.

“Jessie is a little bit like the Mona Lisa, she has 1,000 different ways of smiling,” Nikou says of his lead actor. “And then, Riz is almost like a chameleon, he can be very comedic like in Four Lions or very dramatic like in Sound of Metal. But I never saw either in a romance, and I thought they would have amazing chemistry together.” He goes on to add, of his choice to cast Jeremy Allen White as a boyfriend whose time might be up, “If it was a typical American movie, he would have been a bad guy. People would say, oh leave that guy. But we wanted it to be more complex, and Jeremy is great at that.”

In addition to that triumvirate, Luke Wilson appears as the hangdog but kind boss of the Love Institute, a role which was initially conceived for none other than Hugh Grant. “Hugh Grant is the only guy who knows everything about love,” says Nikou. “And Notting Hill is basically a sci-fi to me anyway: I think I was 14 and I was like, ‘OK, I will open a bookstore and the biggest Hollywood movie star will fall in love with me.’” He’s half-joking, perhaps, but as he points out: movies have taught us an awful lot about the idea of love.

The disposability of dating app culture – and the absurd idea that an algorithm could ever quantify something as messy and human as love – is an engine for Fingernails, but they don’t literally feature in the plot at all.

“I am scared by AI. I’m scared about how things have changed. And I think this is exactly a movie about this. It’s a movie about how human we are, and how much we are letting AI decide about us” – Christos Nikou

“I love conceptual stories that are really grounded. So I think that especially when you are talking about topics like memory, grief, or love – they are timeless, and they exist forever in his life. And while you’re also trying to make comments – in both films – about how technology has affected our connection with these topics, I think it’s great to make it a more timeless way. So the complete absence of technology, which in a way helps us to make comments about it.”

Nikou’s timing has been curiously prophetic on both occasions of his film releases. Apples concerns a mysterious plague that causes amnesia, but was conceived prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and released in its midst, giving it an additional and sometimes uncanny oomph of recognition for viewers. The same feels true of Fingernails, given the ongoing and raging controversy around the use of AI. “It’s obvious for me that the movie talks about technology. We have this technological device, this machine, where everybody goes to it for answers. They’re trying to find answers for their own emotions. And I am scared by AI. I’m scared about how things have changed. And I think this is exactly a movie about this. It’s a movie about how human we are, and how much we are letting AI decide about us.”

It’s a poignant thought at a moment like ours, but also a film that celebrates the idiosyncrasies, contradictions, and messy reality of falling in love: sometimes it can’t be second-guessed or measured in any logical way. And over time, it evolves – or dissolves. “Love is not something that you have to prove just one time and then settle into the routine,” Nikou says. “Love is something that you need to work on every day. I think that that's the only way that it can be effective.”

Fingernails is out on November 3.