In the present-day-adjacent time period in the unspecified city where Fingernails unfolds, a newish technology has been embraced by a growing number of couples. Promising “no more uncertainty” and “no more divorce,” the simple but physically daunting test enables people to be sure they’ve found a true love connection. All that’s required is the removal of one fingernail from each participant. There will be blood, yes, but mainly there’s a well-written and beautifully performed investigation of yearning and the mysterious realm that apps and algorithms can only profess to quantify.
Greek writer-director Christos Nikou has assembled a small, ace ensemble, led by the endlessly compelling Jessie Buckley, for a modestly scaled feature spun from smart provocation and deep feeling. (After its fest-circuit bows, the film is set for an early November release in theaters and on Apple TV+.) Working with British screenwriter Sam Steiner and Stavros Raptis, the co-writer of Nikou’s first movie, Apples (and with Cate Blanchett’s Dirty Films again on board), Nikou has crafted a piece of intimate sci-fi speculation where couples’ peace of mind rests on one ludicrously simple gadget.
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For schoolteacher Anna (Jessie Buckley) and her partner, Ryan (The Bear star Jeremy Allen White), the burning question was settled three years ago, when the test confirmed that they’re in love with each other. Positive test results are a good thing, and the only positive result is 100 percent, meaning that both partners feel the earth move. The other possible outcomes are zero and the even more problematic 50 percent, revealing that only one half of the couple is enamored. Uh-oh.
Sight gags indicate how embedded this love-certification industry has become, with restaurants offering happy hours for “couples in love,” and a movie theater marquee announcing a Hugh Grant lineup (because “no one understands love more”). And yet, despite the relief that their test result presumably provided, Anna is restless. The way she and Ryan interact in their spacious, comfortable vintage home (the outstanding contributions by designers Zazu Myers and Bina Daigeler are low-key and unadorned), it’s evident that they’re not on the same page. Ryan, played to comic-poignant perfection by White, is a sincere guy who cries over TV nature docs and is happy to settle into routine now that the test is behind them. But questions persist for Anna, and she embarks on a mildly thrilling road of deception.
Letting Ryan believe that she’s still teaching, she instead accepts a job in the very business whose purpose he sensibly questions: She signs on at a downtown love institute that conducts the fingernail procedure and preps couples for it. Anna’s boss, Duncan (a wonderfully rumpled turn from Luke Wilson), is a slightly frazzled divorced dad who created a program of intimacy-enhancing exercises for confirmation-seeking couples. As to whether the program is designed to increase the chances of good test results or simply ease the disappointment of bad ones, it’s unclear, but the logic that defines the movie’s speculative science is the logic of absurdity, so the few small holes in the setup are hardly showstoppers.
Anna’s orientation session unfolds with deadpan humor, and not far beneath the wry surface is the need to know, the thing that brings clients and employees alike to such a place. There’s earnest hunger in Anna’s gaze as she learns the ropes, and there’s delight and amazement in the eyes of Amir (Riz Ahmed), the employee who’s training her. The two performances are exceptionally well calibrated in their stillness and caution as the characters’ unspoken attraction builds. The co-workers’ friendship hits new depths across the dance floor at an institute party, when Anna can’t take her eyes off Amir’s expressive moves, and discovers that Natasha (Annie Murphy), the woman he presents as his partner, isn’t who he claims she is.
Guiding clients through such tests and exercises as singing to each other in French (the language of love!) and jumping out of planes (trust!), Amir and Anna take a special interest in a 20-something couple, Rob (Christian Meer) and Sally (Amanda Arcuri). For all the couples, though, one question persists: If they’re happy together, why seek external “proof”? That question grows only louder once you see Amir and Anna conducting the actual scientific test, placing two fingernail specimens in a rectangular piece of minimalist machinery that looks like a retro idea of a futuristic kitchen oven. Whole life decisions rest on the results, revealed within seconds on a decidedly low-resolution screen.
Dismantling the idea of romance as a goalpost in ways that are at once fantastic and plain, Fingernails moves between daytime workplace surrealism and revelatory nighttime conversations. The fluent camerawork by Marcell Rév and Yorgos Zafeiris’ editing capture a striking geometry in Toronto locations, grounding the story’s moody restraint in a dynamic cityscape — a place where life can take you by surprise. Throughout, composer Christopher Stracey’s score is in tune with Anna’s ravenous need to believe, exquisitely expressed by Buckley, as is Amir’s by Ahmed. It’s not the brief visions of gore that make a lasting impression, but Anna’s cries of confusion and Amir’s quiet reassurances. It’s the longing not just to trust your own heart, but to hear it over all the noise masquerading as data.
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