I don’t know many who would argue we’ve been overtaken by algorithms and compatibility tests that apps use to pair us up with romantic matches. But perhaps those who’ve pushed past the average swipe-right app and into ones with long quizzes might disagree. Exploring a world where compatibility tests rein supreme is Fingernails, Christos Nikou’s science fiction take on a world that seems to view love as a mathematical equation.
Jessie Buckley leads as Anna, who seems like the last romantic in a world of clinical love. In her world, one that prioritizes long-term monogamous relationships, couples can be tested to see if they’re genuinely in love with each other by having a fingernail painfully ripped off. Couples who get a negative love result on their test might dissolve or can opt to attend institutes to perform exercises to try and render a positive result (oddly reminiscent of conversion therapy). While the focus seems to be on romance, the scientific nature of the approach strips it of the requisite spontaneity, highlighting how Anna’s bend towards things like intimacy makes her different. Anna is one of the fortunate ones; she and her partner, Ryan (Jeremy Allen White), tested positive for love allowing them to float on autopilot through a mundane relationship.
After taking a job at an institute, Anna meets Amir (Riz Ahmed). In a world of squares, Amir is heart-shaped, and this slowly draws the two together. Struggling to understand what it means to be in love as indicated by machine, Anna, Amir, and even Ryan are tested to their personal limits and the limits of a world that only sees romance as an equation.
Fingernails is an interesting study of love, society’s reliance on a specific type of familiar relationship, and the need for external validation. However, by not spending enough time on its premise, it renders it somewhat obtuse. The world built for the film does not feel wholly thought out beyond some frustration about love and rigidity. It grazes themes about prioritizing a specific form of a family unit and the confusion of endless love. Still, it doesn’t feel interested in exploring it beyond marking it as an oddity. Is the test for love flawed? Is it a test of compatibility or mutual affection? (Is there a little bit of Hang the DJ happening inside that machine?) Is science devoid of romance? The movie seems not to be intentionally avoiding over-explaining its premise but more uninterested in exploring the depths of its own logic. By not doing enough to explore the rules that they’re ultimately broken by, the characters feel romantically inert.
Much of the supporting cast, White included, bolsters the feeling of the beige world by acting very flat. Thus, Ahmed and Buckley marking their characters with smiles and “silly” gestures make them stand out, painting them with brushes of more authentic emotion and romance. This works but also makes the supporting performances feel like deadpans, reminiscent of The Lobster, another film that prioritizes coupling up in a strange world with more thought-out bizarre logic.
There’s a moment where Luke Wilson appears as the founder of the institute where Anna works, and exposition dumps about divorces and couples failing the test, creating a crisis scenario. It would have been an excellent opportunity to explore the world’s logic as a means of making the emotional beats have more stakes instead of being relegated to a personal journey of someone whose beliefs are tested since we rarely are clear just what those are.
To create its beige and square world, the film is composed of muted shades with the odd burst of turquoise on the leads. Technology is ambiguously dated (old tube screens on futuristic technology) like we’ve seen in Severance (among others), which lend to a Wes Anderson sort of strange-but-ordinary feeling instead of making it feel like futuristic science fiction. Areas are large but cluttered, the emotional effect of Anna and Amir often taking up the most space in the frame.
Fingernails isn’t always lost and is sometimes of a warm romance in a world that feels ice cold. But its ideas about romance, love, and relationships as against a world that prioritizes one version of it are not adequately explored, thus leaving the emotional core to a few stolen glances that may or may not have any stakes.
Fingernails is available to stream on Apple TV+