If the words “romantic comedy” and “fingernails” conjure the further words “would rather pull mine out with pliers than watch”, this English-language debut from Greece’s Christos Nikou may be for you. And perhaps not coincidentally – this is a rom-com so ingeniously deconstructed it deserves its own Lego manual – the removal of fingernails with pliers is a major plot point.
In a gently odd alternate present, scientists have managed to pin down true love as a medical condition. Its presence can be detected in keratin, so couples who want to find out if they’re compatible troop off to the Love Institute to have their talons yanked out and analysed. The test results come through in a matter of minutes after the nails have been placed together in a sort of toaster oven from which cartoon tendrils of smoke silently curl, like a malfunctioning computer on Red Dwarf.
Full positive results are depressingly rare – you might just as easily end up with a 50 per cent “unrequited” rating, which is just embarrassing for all concerned – so the Institute’s tousled head scientist (Luke Wilson) has his staff coach applicants beforehand, in the hope the relevant emotions can be chivvied along a bit. Amir (Riz Ahmed) is one such staffer, and Anna (Jessie Buckley) is his new colleague, and to spot the spark between them, no nail-pulling is required.
For all the carefully scaffolded weirdness of Fingernails’ premise – viewers versed in the new Greek appetite for absurdism will spot elements of Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster here – the workplace romance that follows feels entirely real and recognisable, thanks in no small part to Buckley and Ahmed’s downright adorable and gorgeously interwound performances. (The way she looks at him and smiles while he obliviously dances to Frankie Valli at an office party is worth watching the film for alone.) Anna is technically already taken: her partner Ryan, played by The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White, is a dull-and-dependable type; they tested three years ago with fully positive results. Yet she obviously feels something for her workmate that she doesn’t for her boyfriend – either the oven missed something vitally important, or she did.
Nikou’s film is wonderfully astute on love’s unruliness: it wants you to both delight in and despair of it, and have fun doing both. At one point, Anna and Amir attend a screening of Notting Hill at a Hugh Grant film festival: “nobody understands love more,” the cinema marquee proclaims. But as Fingernails convincingly suggests, understanding might just be exactly the wrong way to think about it.
15 cert, 113 min. Cinemas and Apple TV+ now.