The age-old question of how to know if your romantic partner is “the one” is a confrontation that every couple has encountered at some point. Its very unknowability has led to endless consternation, uncertainty, and settling out of convenience. Christos Nikou’s Fingernails posits a world where technology can provide a definitive affirmative (or negative) confirmation of love and, with it, the eradication of much of that uncertainty. If you and your partner “match” and you’re offered scientific proof that you are in love with one another, then how can the possibility of separation, infidelity, or garden variety doubt even exist? This is the dilemma at the center of Fingernails, particularly when one half of a happy, if perhaps a bit complacent, couple (Jessie Buckley as Anna) finds herself falling for another man, her colleague Amir (Riz Ahmed). But the test says you can’t be in love with more than one person, and that’s just science!
Fingernails offers a decidedly dogmatic approach to human emotions, codifying passion and the intangible qualities of affection, which is no doubt the very paradox with which the film is consumed. It’s also a total strawman and a flimsy conceit on which to hang an entire feature. Playing like a less acidic, less formally adventurous take on the films of Nikou’s countryman Yorgos Lanthimos, Fingernails spins up a faintly dystopian scenario where able-minded people take leave of their sense, allowing junk science to tell them whether they’re actually in love and then abide by the results. It’s a voluntary process, mind you, a glorified personality test that involves ripping out a fingernail at the root and testing its genetic material against your would-be mate’s. But the test’s power comes in the way people are willing to give themselves over to the pursuit of definitive answers, denying themselves happiness — it’s strongly implied that couples who don’t match sever their relationships almost immediately — because a computer tells them what’s actually in their hearts. Therefore, the impediment standing in the way of the characters’ happiness and all the messy, wonderful complications that come with falling in love is whether they can allow for self-actualization if it runs counter to their faith in a technology which, as presented in the film, has existed for all of a few years. Not to put too fine a point on it, but who the hell cares?
Anna is a schoolteacher living with her longtime boyfriend, Ryan (Jeremy Allen White). Years earlier, the couple took the fingernails test at the Love Institute, which confirmed their feelings for one another — the way the test works is if your score a 100%, then both sides of the couple love one another; meanwhile, a 50% means only one person is in love, whereas a 0% means neither person is really feeling it. But recently, the couple seem to have fallen into a passionless routine free of spontaneity. Friends of theirs have even gotten re-tested, seemingly to reaffirm the results, an idea Ryan flatly refuses to consider. So when an opportunity presents itself to work at the Love Institute, Anna jumps at it, hoping to learn more about the mysterious testing process and to better understand her own relationship. She’s paired with Amir (Ahmed), and the two of them administer a series of activities and controlled experiments that are meant to measure levels of devotion in prospective couples. These range from strapping an electric charge to a subject’s body, ensuring they’ll feel physical pain whenever their partner leaves the house, to more overtly comedic tests like having a classroom full of adults strip down to their underwear, blindfolding one half of a couple, and asking them to wander around the room to find their partner based entirely on smell. In her work with Amir, Anna discovers a sense of purpose and a renewed sense of passion she no longer feels with Ryan (who mostly sits around watching nature documentaries at home). Is it possible the test was wrong? What if she and Ryan are no longer compatible, and what does it mean when she surreptitiously tests one of her fingernails against Amir’s, and it shows a 50% match? They’re both in relationships with other people, so how can one of them be in love with two people at the same time?
The problem with the film is self-evident. Otherwise intelligent adults cling to an almost child-like adherence to pseudoscience as the new religion, allowing it to dictate the course of their lives and override core parts of their personality like intuition and common sense. “We can’t really be in love with one another because the test said so” is an entirely unsatisfying internal logic, and so one spends the film impatiently waiting for the characters to throw caution to the wind and allow themselves to fall for one another “the old-fashioned way.” And there’s nothing to stop them, of course; no institutional controls or secret police enforcing the status quo — the “all-knowing” public face of the Love Institute belongs to the ultra-affable Luke Wilson. Rather, such a coupling simply requires the courage to draw upon a long-dormant streak of individualism and disregard for groupthink or results spit out by a computer. Nikou tries to instill this scenario with anxiety — the bandage wrapped around someone’s finger serves as a very visible mark of shame, especially for those in a committed relationship; the equivalent of suddenly walking around without your wedding band — as well as positioning empirical certainty as a justification for why relationships atrophy, but he’s mostly attempting to wring drama from stasis and self-delusion. At the same time, for all the film’s nods to exaggeration, with the Love Institute’s curriculum veering into knowing absurdism, none of this registers as bone-dry satire. Instead, it’s trying to skewer a mindset that doesn’t actually exist, squandering a talented cast in a scenario which precludes dramatic fireworks. Fingernails appears to be arguing for people to cast aside their attachments to technology and embrace the uncertainty that comes with following their hearts, but this is a long way to go simply get people to delete Tinder from their phones.
DIRECTOR: Christos Nikou; CAST: Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed, Jeremy Allen White, Annie Murphy; DISTRIBUTOR: Apple Original Films; IN THEATERS: October 27; STREAMING: November 3; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 53 min.