Fingernails, a Clinical Treatise on Love, Still Exudes Some Warmth

Movies Reviews Christos Nikou
Fingernails, a Clinical Treatise on Love, Still Exudes Some Warmth

In his sophomore effort, Greek director Christos Nikou (who debuted with the pandemic sci-fi Apples in 2020) wants to know what love is. Ha ha, yeah buddy, get in line! But it’s an urgent question in Fingernails’ world, where a concerning absence of love has sparked the need for a test. Administered through different institutes, the Test doesn’t simply measure the compatibility of two romantically-inclined individuals—yes, only two, as explained by Love Institute founder Duncan (Luke Wilson); you can’t be in love with more than one person at the same time, hilarious not only in its negation of the existence of polyamory. But the Test also measures precisely how in love two people are. It’s very black and white, however: You’re either in it for 0%, 50% or 100%, and if you score a 50%, there is no way of knowing which one of you is only halfway there. The Test was created for people to feel more secure in their relationships, to “remove the risk from love.” But all it did was cause apprehension over the nature of one’s own feelings. Even couples that score a positive aren’t so sure what their results mean in the face of emotions that seem to exist in the gray middle area that the Test doesn’t want to acknowledge.

Created five years prior to the events of Fingernails (the film starts off with an anonymous, though, I believe, factual statement about how discolored nails can be a sign of forthcoming heart problems—a fingernail is removed to take the Test), the first iteration of the Test generated such a wave of negative results that it caused a love crisis. It’s a crisis spoken about in murmurs and shifty glances with no indication of scope or extent, or even what anyone means by “crisis” at all. Is it a birth rate thing? Or something else? The lack of clarity is somewhat charming in a matter-of-fact way that might come across better in a more aesthetically and texturally charming world. Still, when it’s more common for screenwriters to explain away ambiguity, a little is always welcome.

The Test is controversial, yet the world is beholden to it. And instead of questioning the Test’s validity, organizations formed spaces for couples to create stronger bonds prior to taking it, as Duncan explains to his Love Training trainees. More questions and ambiguity: Why is the Test not mandatory if it’s so important? Why is its efficacy not questioned? Perhaps it’s just me being pedantic, but these are questions I wouldn’t be asking if Fingernails was on the same wavelength as its subject matter. 

Logistic quibbles aside, organizations like the Love Institute are committed to better overseeing the Test and creating a more positive environment for couples to exude as much love for one another as possible, built up through activities and exercises run by employees of the institute. Enter Anna (Jessie Buckley), who decides to break from her resume as a schoolteacher and look for a job helping these couples be as in love as possible. It’s a move that she initially hides from her committed, live-in boyfriend Ryan (Jeremy Allen White, annoyingly pleasant and dull), despite the two having previously scored a 100% on the test. Her reasons for wanting to take the position are nebulous, but it’s clear it’s because she’s having quiet second thoughts about their relationship. How can she be having second thoughts when she scored 100%? The test said that she’s in love, so she should be.

If that already didn’t make sense, Anna’s emotions are thrown into further turmoil upon meeting Amir (Riz Ahmed), her coworker and fellow Love Trainer at the Institute. Amir is handsome, charming and knows how to dance (a facet in a partner which Anna is somewhat fixated on). The two immediately strike up a timid flirtation while working together. This connection is only enhanced through their jointly administered training program, which tickles a romantic bone in Anna’s body that hasn’t seen stimulation in what appears to be a long time. Buckley and Ahmed are not only lovely to look at together but display a genuine, quiet yearning for one another that feels crushingly earnest. Anna’s relationship with Ryan has clearly fallen into a routine like any couple might. People get a little bored, people’s eyes wander, they might strike up an innocent crush despite still loving their partner. While that seems like it might be the case for Anna as well—hard to determine with what little we know of her relationship—she perceives her emotional and sexual unfulfillment as confirmation of her dwindling love for Ryan, even after they garner a second 100% test score. But when Anna is able to test hers and Amir’s fingernails together, coming up with only a 50%, she begins to reconsider—yes—what she thought love was.

There’s nothing particularly astonishing, interesting or new about Fingernails, or the way that it approaches the topic of love, a topic covered by about 95% of films. Surprise: Looking at love in clinical, black-and-white terms won’t yield productive results, because love isn’t a duality. It’s more like an unyielding and endless continuum. Still, the film wants us to consider: What if we did look at love that way? Again, it doesn’t really take it into any territory not charted previously, but it would be easier to forgive if the movie was, as I mentioned earlier, more, stylistically interesting. But it merely has that drab, mildew filter that the more recent “realistic” indie dystopia films love to use. It’s far too beholden to this kind of realism, a kind that feels pointless to the text, while employing a retro-tech aesthetic seemingly because everyone else is doing the same. 

Still, I found myself undeniably charmed by a lingering warmth in the coldness of Fingernails, no doubt helped along by the performances of Buckley and Ahmed. Buckley in particular—soft-spoken, slightly scared, enchanted by the prospect of two people in love like a kid in a candy shop—is totally captivating, and her itch to feel desired claws at your skin. And I’d be remiss to not mention the welcome presence of Wilson, a sorely missed figure in films. May this be a harbinger of more Luke Wilson performances to come!

The Test was created not to sow fear and doubt, but to affirm love, and to take away the risk that comes with falling into it with another person. But isn’t the risk what makes love feel so powerful, as Anna also considers? The complete trust you must place in another human being that they feel the same way for you, even if it might be more complicated than that. With a 100% score, couples receive a literal “In Love Certification” to assure them that their love for one another is truly real. But with that amount of assurance, something key is taken away—a tantalizing risk, a reason to improve or enhance the relationship, and a crucial uncertainty of being human. Well, yes, isn’t that obvious? Yet despite this obviousness, you can’t help but melt watching Buckley and Ahmed smile at one another as Yazoo’s “Only You” plays, falling in love with them as they embrace that very uncertainty.

Director: Christos Nikou
Writer: Christos Nikou, Stavros Raptis, Sam Steiner
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed, Jeremy Allen White, Luke Wilson
Release Date: November 3, 2023 (Apple TV+)

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.

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