October 31, 2023
Fingernails screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Apple TV+ releases it in theaters on October 27 before the film streams on November 03.
How far would you go to prove your love to someone? Would you move across the country? Would you undergo a career change? Would you rip off your fingernail to undergo a love test? If you answered yes to any of these questions, most importantly the final one, then you would be right at home in Christos Nikou’s Fingernails. In the Greek writer/director’s vision of the near future, there is such a device that can scientifically prove whether two people are in love. All it takes is for each person to rip off one of their fingernails and place it into the machine. Within a few minutes, you’re provided with an undeniable answer. What you and your partner do after that is entirely up to you.
Most people who fail the test break up, causing divorce rates to momentarily skyrocket before reaching record lows. Anyone who passes the test is left with a sense of security, although that sense of risk that keeps a relationship from flatlining has now been eliminated. Unemployed teacher Anna (Jessie Buckley) is in the latter camp. She and her longtime boyfriend Ryan (Jeremy Allen White) passed the test a few years ago. He’s content with the coasting they’ve been doing since then, but she’s beginning to have doubts. What’s the point of being proven compatible if nothing else is going to come from it?
That kind of questioning is one of the many ways you can poke holes in Nikou’s concept of modern love. A couple’s love for each other is never constant, so should we be putting value in a machine that can only judge based on a fixed moment in time? What about open relationships? Same-sex relationships? It’s best not to ask too many questions as Nikou and co-writers Sam Steiner and Stavros Raptis (the latter also co-writing Nikou’s 2020 feature debut Apples) have little interest in answering them. Taking all of this at face value would be an acceptable proposition except for the fact that there isn’t much to discover on the surface.
Nikou served as the assistant director to Yorgos Lanthimos on Dogtooth and the influences are quite obvious. This transition to the English language takes an almost identical comically dry approach of The Lobster, sans the deadpan dialogue and threat of being turned into an animal if you don’t fall in love. What’s meant to replace that lack of originality is an edge, which is sorely lacking here. Many of Nikou’s ideas are left half-baked, with a lot of time and space budgeted for rote revelations we see from a mile away.
What Nikou has shown a knack for is his ability to create a world that’s both detached and identical to our own. The all-knowing machine is a glorified microwave, put together and painted as if it were a prop for a high school stage play. A drab autumnal color palette envelopes everything, a visual metaphor for how love has lost its luster.
One could question why Jeremy Allen White - a hot commodity after the success of The Bear - would sign onto the role of Ryan, a perennial wet blanket who makes it all too easy for us to root for Anna and her coworker Amir (Riz Ahmed) to get together. Buckley and Ahmed are charming, exchanging glances as they’re feelings for each other slowly develop. There’s also the likable presence of Luke Wilson as the inventor of the machine and Anna Murphy as Amir’s girlfriend.
Fingernails is a pole vaulter who has an incredible walk-up, but somehow always seems to hit the bar. Nikou is finding his craft as an auteur, with this film proving that he can semi-successfully adapt his vision to a larger canvas. Here’s hoping the third time is the charm.