We humans crave certainty, sometimes to outright self-destructive ends. We like to pretend that we have some semblance of knowledge and control over the uncontrollable and the non-tangible, particularly when it comes to romance. Putting oneself out there completely over and over again, hoping to find the one person who makes you feel fully seen and loves you for all your virtues and vices, and someone whom you feel likewise about, can become a form of self-flagellation after a certain point. Fostering that initial spark, investing so much time and effort into making the relationship work, only to be constantly nagged at by a little uncertain voice in the back of one’s mind that maybe this isn’t The One or that maybe your partner doesn’t feel the same way or that it’s all just doomed anyway.
Modern dating apps try to reassure their users with fancy algorithms offering up percentile compatibility figures in a collective delusion that a natural gut feeling can somehow be scientifically quantified via cold hard objective data… and yet it’s an alluring prospect all the same. The idea that you really can get total certainty about one of the least certain emotions, and use that certainty as comfort through rough patches and ruts.
This very human insecurity is what director/co-writer Christos Nikou’s sophomore feature Fingernails focuses on. Envisioning a world – one that may be our future but has all of its technology, vehicles, feng shui, and pop culture stall out in the mid-to-late 90s – where science has managed to conjure up a test which tells couples with exact certainty whether or not they are in love with each other.
Simply by removing a fingernail from each party (something to do with the real fact that white spots on your fingernails are the first sign of heart problems) and inserting them into a microwave-like machine, couples can get a result of either 0% (neither person is in love with the other), 100% (both are in love), or 50% (one is in love but the other is not). Unsurprisingly, in the five years since the test was publicly introduced, it’s wreaked havoc on the population with a significant majority of couples who put themselves through it getting negative results. Hence the arrival of Love Institutes, mass group couples therapy bureaus which aim to try and strengthen those bonds of prospective sweethearts before they take the test.
Anna (Jessie Buckley) and Ryan (Jeremy Allen White) are one of the lucky couples, having taken the test three years ago and gotten a 100% score. But a complacent rut has started to set in, the kind where every night ends with the two of them sat on a sofa at home zoning out to identikit nature documentaries barely talking to one another. Ryan is very much oblivious to this, hanging on to the fact that their test three years back provided all the certainty he needs, but Anna yearns for something more.
That yearning draws her to take a job as a test-giver at the Love Institute, working alongside the charming and romantic Amir (Riz Ahmed) conducting strengthening exercises often based on cliched ideas of romance: singing love songs entirely in French, watching a Hugh Grant marathon, maintaining eye contact whilst underwater. When paired against the heatless home-front with Ryan, a man who cannot even pretend to be into couples’ pottery for all of two minutes, little wonder that Anna’s second-guessing begins to grow and her relationship with Amir starts to lean more than just professional.
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All of this is a really solid set-up for Fingernails to build off; pity then that this set-up is all the movie has. Nikou’s film feels like a detailed outline for a compelling semi-satirical romance drama rather than a fully-fledged movie which can make good on that potential. Something forever stuck in first gear to such a degree that I didn’t even realise the grand moving climax was supposed to be so. A lot of the potential social commentary the film evidently wants to make never goes deeper than what is listed in the last two paragraphs, content to sit on the most basic observations rather than drill down deeper into the psychological and sociological baggage underpinning them either for deadpan comedy or drama. You would think there’s gold to be mined from the fact that the vast majority of staff at the Love Institute are themselves either hopelessly single or dealing with unhappy relationships, yet this disconnect by and large goes unexplored.
Despite being a genre gumbo, Fingernails is frequently torn between tones. Its absurdist comedy touches – a building which plays an unending loop of rain sounds to simulate feelings of intimacy, a new employee asking how somebody without arms is supposed to take the fingernail test, Amir having to stumble his way through explaining how the lyrics to Charles Trenet’s original French version of ‘Beyond the Sea’ relate to romance – delivered so dryly and understated that they barely register as comic touches. Its body horror element of pulling fingernails non-committedly shied away from most of the time, a clumsy metaphor again left at its starting base for much too long.
Its budding romance between Anna and Amir suffers from detached filmmaking which never tries to communicate either a rush of energy nor a fear of loss; meet-cute-type car window fumbles without any charge, longing glances shorn of aching desire, shared looks and stammered confessions with an energy equivalent to filing one’s tax return. Amir bemoans at one point that “watching a love story feels safe, being in love doesn’t,” yet Nikou’s film is unable to conjure up either state, instead settling on a suffocating monotony of bitter-sweetness that rarely changes.
The obvious comparison haunting Fingernails is The Lobster, the 2015 absurdist romance drama by Nikou’s fellow countryman Yorgos Lanthimos which also examined the ways in which we try to use passionless scientific means to replicate or strengthen love. I wasn’t particularly enamoured of Lanthimos’ film, but watching Fingernails did give me a renewed appreciation for his ability to more seamlessly blend tones without strangling his story, to draw multiple interesting characters with deep psychologies, and to take his world and themes much further than the simplistic initial step. Whilst I do like the look of Nikou’s film – a fixation on analogue technology, mirrored by the decision to have director of photography Marcel Rév shoot on under-exposed 35mm film, and production designer Zazu Meyers’ meticulous recreation of a DMV-reminiscent government office – I really can’t help but feel like the energy of the piece shouldn’t also resemble working a passionless bureaucratic job.
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Instead, Nikou leaves his cast to do the vast majority of the heavy lifting and invest emotional depth where the screenplay falls down, which isn’t entirely a fool’s gambit when you’ve got three of the most talented actors working today. Jeremy Allen White (not in the film nearly enough) nails a casual yet unintentional cruelty to Ryan’s constant refusal to spice up his relationship with Anna, a mixture of contented obliviousness and the tiniest niggling fear in the back of his mind that maybe things have changed. Riz Ahmed lets his natural easy-going charm, something that far too few productions have made use of, glide the underwritten Amir through his scenes with Anna. Jessie Buckley by now is a master at playing characters who feel a deep-rooted sadness but lack the means to fully express it, and even her on autopilot here is still capable of some magnetic exchanges, such as the aftermath of two pivotal late-film tests which rest solely on her facial expressions.
But all three are not miracle workers, and the longer the film presses on, the more unavoidable its screenplay’s shallowness becomes. Whilst Buckley and Ahmed have a relaxed ease in many of their interactions, I never found myself rooting for them as a couple. There’s a perfunctory, almost data-minded sensation to their potential romance, something told rather than shown because it’s merely expected in stories like these. Ironic for a movie which wants to decry the idea of uncomplicated, machine-assisted love. Despite a solid premise, three strong actors, and potentially fruitful production design, Fingernails comes out as a major missed opportunity. Much like the characters, it’s unwilling to truly confront messy uncertainty, instead preferring to stay in the easy faux-comfort of its initial confirmation bias for as long as possible, and ultimately having less to say about love than the pop songs they cling to.
Fingernails is playing in select cinemas and streaming on Apple TV+ now.