In the current contiguous time period in the unspecified city where Fingernails unfolds, a new technology has been embraced by a growing number of couples. With the promise of “no more uncertainty” and “no more divorce,” the simple yet physically intimidating test allows people to be sure they’ve found a true love connection. All it takes is to remove one fingernail from each participant. Blood will flow, yes, but mostly there’s a well-written and beautifully executed exploration of desire and the mysterious realm that apps and algorithms can only profess to quantify.
Greek writer-director Christos Nikou has put together a small top ensemble, led by the endlessly compelling Jessie Buckley, for a feature film on a modest scale, born of clever provocation and deep feeling. (After the festivities, the film will hit theaters and Apple TV+ in early November.) In collaboration with British screenwriter Sam Steiner and Stavros Raptis, the co-writer of Nikou’s first film, Apples (and with Cate Blanchett’s Dirty Films back on board), Nikou has crafted a piece of intimate sci-fi speculation in which couples’ peace of mind rests on one ridiculously simple gadget.
It comes down to
Creatively scratches a philosophical itch.
For school teacher Anna (Jessie Buckley) and her partner Ryan (The bear star Jeremy Allen White), the burning question was resolved three years ago, when the test confirmed that they are in love with each other. Positive test results are a good thing, and the only positive result is 100 percent, meaning both partners feel the earth move. The other possible outcomes are zero and the even more problematic 50 percent, showing that only half of the couple are in love. Oh oh.
Gags show how entrenched this love certifying industry has become, with restaurants offering happy hours for “couples in love,” and a movie tent announcing a Hugh Grant lineup (because “nobody understands love better”). And yet, despite the relief their test result supposedly brought, Anna is restless. From the way she and Ryan interact in their spacious, comfortable vintage home (the outstanding contributions of designers Zazu Myers and Bina Daigeler are understated and unadorned), it’s clear they’re not on the same page. Ryan, played to comically poignant perfection by White, is a sincere man who cries over nature documentaries on TV and is eager to get down to business now that the test is over. But questions remain for Anna, and she embarks on a mildly exciting road of deceit.
Leading Ryan to believe she’s still teaching, she instead accepts a job in the company whose purpose he sensibly questions: she applies to an inner-city love institute that performs the fingernail procedure and prepares couples for it. Anna’s boss, Duncan (a wonderfully rumpled turn from Luke Wilson), is a somewhat exhausted, divorced father who has developed an intimacy-enhancing exercise program for couples seeking validation. Whether the program was designed to increase the chances of good test results or simply soften the disappointment of bad ones is unclear, but the logic that defines the film’s speculative science is the logic of absurdity, so the few small holes in the scheme are hardly showstoppers.
Anna’s orientation session unfolds with dry humour, and not far beneath the wry surface lurks the need to know, what brings both customers and employees to such a place. There is genuine hunger in Anna’s look as she learns the ropes, and there is delight and amazement in the eyes of Amir (Riz Ahmed), the co-worker who trains her. The two performances are exceptionally well calibrated in their stillness and caution as the unspoken appeal of the characters increases. The friendship between the co-workers reaches new depths on the dance floor at an institution party when Anna can’t take her eyes off Amir’s expressive moves and discovers that Natasha (Annie Murphy), the woman he envisions as his partner, isn’t. t who he claims she is.
Amir and Anna guide clients through tests and exercises, such as singing to each other in French (the language of love!) and jumping out of airplanes (confidence!). They take a particular interest in a twenty-year-old couple, Rob (Christian Meer). and Sally (Amanda Arcuri). However, one question remains for all couples: if they are happy together, why should they seek external “proof”? That question only gets louder when you watch Amir and Anna perform the actual science test, placing two fingernail specimens inside a rectangular piece of minimalist machinery that resembles a retro idea of a futuristic kitchen oven. Lifelong decisions rest on results, which are revealed in seconds on a decidedly low-resolution screen.
Dismantling the idea of romance as a goalpost in ways that are simultaneously fantastical and obvious, Fingernails moves between daytime workplace surrealism and revealing nighttime conversations. Marcell Rév’s fluid camerawork and Yorgos Zafeiris’ editing captures striking geometry in Toronto locations, grounding the story’s moody restraint in a dynamic cityscape – a place where life can surprise you. Composer Christopher Stracey’s score is in harmony with Anna’s voracious need to believe, beautifully articulated by Buckley, as is Amir’s by Ahmed. It’s not the brief visions of carnage that make a lasting impression, but Anna’s cries of confusion and Amir’s silent reassurances. It is the desire not only to trust your own heart, but to hear it above all the noise masquerading as data.