Set in a world where love can be scientifically diagnosed, this sci-fi romance pairs its sharply shrewd concept with standout performances by Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed.
November 02, 2023
In the world of Fingernails, 'Only You' isn't just a 1982 pop song that was made famous by Yazoo, is easy to get stuck in your head, and is now heard in this film in both French and English. It's also the philosophy that the first English-language feature by Apples filmmaker Christos Nikou has subscribed its characters to as it cooks up a sci-fi take on romance. In a setup somewhat reminiscent of Elizabeth Holmes' claims to have revolutionised blood testing (see: The Dropout), Fingernails proposes an alternative present where love can be scientifically diagnosed. All that's needed: an extracted plate of keratin, aka the titular digit-protecting covering. At organisations such as The Love Institute, couples willingly have their nails pulled out — one apiece — then popped into what resembles a toaster oven to receive their all-important score. Only three results are possible, with 100 percent the ultimate in swooning, 50 percent meaning that only one of the pair is head over heels and the unwanted zero a harbinger of heartbreak.
When Fingernails begins, it's been three years since teacher Anna (Jessie Buckley, Women Talking) and her partner Ryan (Jeremy Allen White, The Bear) underwent the exam, with the long-term duo earning the best possible outcome — a score that's coveted but rare. Around them, negative results have led to breakups and divorces as society's faith is placed not in hearts and souls, but in a number, a gimmick and some tech gadgetry (one of the sales pitches, though, is that finding out before getting hitched will stop failed marriages). Even folks who've obtained top marks aren't always content to stop there. Some seek to reaffirm their positive result years down the track. To boost their chances of nabbing a love certificate, other couples take courses to amplify their amorous feelings for each other. Sessions include watching Hugh Grant movies ("nobody understands love more," exclaims the cinema marquee), tracking your paramour's scent, getting breathless underwater while staring into your other half's eyes and the adrenaline rush of tandem skydiving.
As their friends go the retesting route — satirising the need for certainty in affairs of the heart pumps firmly through this movie's veins — Anna hasn't been able to convince Ryan to attend The Love Institute as a client. She's soon spending her days there, however, feeding her intrigue with the whole scenario as an employee. When she takes a job counselling other pairs towards hopeful ever-after happiness, she keeps the career shift from her own significant other. Quickly, she has something else she can't tell Ryan: a blossoming bond with her colleague Amir (Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal). As the operation's head Duncan (Luke Wilson, Fired on Mars) steps her through the official details, including the fact that it is biologically impossible for one person to be in love with two people according to the testing method, Anna starts feeling sparks fly with the co-worker assigned to show her the ropes. Amir has his own girlfriend (Annie Murphy, Black Mirror), but clearly reciprocates.
Haddaway's Saturday Night Live- and A Night at the Roxbury-adored 1993 tune 'What Is Love' doesn't get a spin in Fingernails, but that's the question that Nikou and co-screenwriters Stavros Raptis (returning from Apples) and Sam Steiner (a feature first-timer) probe. The Greek writer/director and his collaborators contrast fondness as a contrived series of sensations with affection as a lived-in routine and passion as a butterflies-in-the-stomach response. So, Nikou's picture sees the mechanics, the comfort and the involuntary swirl — and sees Anna torn between everything that she's told, what she's supposed to be satisfied with and the yearnings that she's not meant to be experiencing. The filmmaker also makes a flick that pairs well with fellow new release Foe, exploring what technology can and can't tell us about love, and what will always remain innate, although Fingernails is never as dystopian, nor a thriller — and trades a definite future date for an undetermined era where mobile phones are welcomely absent.
When he made his full-length debut with 2020's Apples, Nikou also sought love in an offbeat place, amid a pandemic of amnesia. In the process, he dived into the Greek Weird Wave that's become synonymous with The Favourite's Yorgos Lanthimos, whose own breakout Dogtooth was nominated for the Best International Feature Oscar. Fingernails' helmer was the second assistant director on Dogtooth, in fact, and now adds a picture to his resume that follows in the wonderfully absurdist footsteps of Lanthimos' The Lobster. Both are deeply romantic movies at their core, as well as sharply shrewd and witty flicks about human nature and societal norms. Both rally against conformity and expectation, too, and make physical the pains and struggles that come with the pursuit of affection. That said, Fingernails takes a more tender approach to its scenario. Dispelling the fascination with chasing one definitive perfect match by flouting that itself, it'd also make a great double with Celine Song's Past Lives, where there's nothing simple about a heart torn in two directions.
Nikou's knack for casting is no different to Lanthimos' supreme skill in the same domain; what a quietly pining duo that Buckley and Ahmed make. Never seeming at risk of demanding that "yes chef!" be yelled his way, White gets myopic about relationships rather than cooking in a canny supporting role as someone who's blissfully emotionally oblivious — but, like Anna and Amir themselves, viewers are desperate to spend more time amid the real heat. Buckley and Ahmed turn in vulnerable portrayals that sear, even when the pacing unfurling their tale and the hues splashed around them are both muted. Nikou knows how feelings can both explode and simmer, serving up each. As he did in Apples, he also provides more memorable and meaningful dancing, this time as Amir cuts loose, Anna watches on, everything is evident and nothing needs to be said.
The film looks away from the actual ripping out of nails — the idea remains suitably squirm-inducing, yet is never seen in gory detail because the audience flinches at the very notion anyway — but cinematographer Marcell Rév (Euphoria, The Changeling) utterly adores peering at Buckley and Ahmed. With different stars, he demonstrated the same focus in Malcolm & Marie with similarly intimate results. The premise here might be as high-concept as plots come, but seeing the longing, loneliness, melancholy, uncertainty, desire and revelations in Fingernails' two key performances couldn't feel more real. This is a movie that tingles with emotion — in its fingertips and everywhere.
Fingernails screens in select cinemas from Thursday, November 2, and streams via Apple TV+ from Friday, November 3.
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