Love is one of the most popular topics in cinema, and the countless ways it can manifest form a uniquely human range of emotions. Christos Nikou’s second feature film, FINGERNAILS, takes that idea and examines how we can distort and pervert human interaction when we look to quantify, certify, and parade details of messy personal questions that have no simple objective truth.
The story follows Anna (Jessie Buckley), who takes a job at The Love Institute, an establishment specialising in training and preparing couples for a supposedly scientific test (involving pulling one of their fingernails) that certifies they are in love. Anna has previously tested positive with her partner Ryan (Jeremy Allen White), whom she does not initially tell about her new employer. She is paired with the more experienced Amir (Riz Ahmed) for her initial work preparing couples, with hints of a burgeoning connection between the two co-workers.
FINGERNAILS begins with gentle world-building, where the characters’ experiences seem relatively typical and contemporary. Much like APPLES – Nikou’s first feature film – the world our characters find themselves in doesn’t seem too different to our own. The technology has a retro-futuristic aesthetic, but cars and other frills of day-to-day life look familiar. Still, there is a subtle dystopian angle, where hints are made to the ‘love’ certification making life easier, or at least removing friction (perhaps in the same way some may argue marriage or civil partnerships do now). To test again is referenced as a ‘risk’. Throughout, the entire concept is shown to be a source of stress and anxiety, even for those who have passed. One of Anna and Ryan’s friends seeks a retest to determine the severity of marital strain. Other friends reject the concept of going for the test outright, which returns only three possible results corresponding to both, one, or neither person being in love (0%, 50%, 100%).
“FINGERNAILS takes The Love Institute’s training program and how characters react to it to offer a similar examination of our desire to quantify and certify our personal experiences for internal validation (of, perhaps, narcissistic tendencies) and for external approval of our life choices.”
APPLES focused upon absurd tasks prescribed to amnesia sufferers to poke gently at the performative nature of social media overtaking genuine experiences in importance. FINGERNAILS takes The Love Institute’s training program and how characters react to it to offer a similar examination of our desire to quantify and certify our personal experiences for internal validation (of, perhaps, narcissistic tendencies) and for external approval of our life choices. As with his first feature, a slightly retro-futuristic production design (the machine which carries out the test could be from a 1960s and 1950s sci-fi film) allows Nikou to strip any notion of modern innovation, allowing a step back from the data-laden world of dating apps, internet compatibility tests and the like.
There is also the obvious through-line of love often being a painful experience – brought bluntly to bear by the ripping out of fingernails – and relationships requiring work. Part of Anna’s malaise at the film’s outset is derived from Ryan’s complacency since they tested positive, and her connection with Amir seeming palpable despite being in love with more than one person at a time being “a biological impossibility”, according to her boss, Duncan (Luke Wilson).
“The well-trodden path these ideas inhabit means FINGERNAILS lacks some of the sharpness of the insights packaged in APPLES. However, where the strength of FINGERNAILS lies is in its similarly sharp presentation of how modern technology and societal pressure can undermine essential human connection.”
The well-trodden path these ideas inhabit means FINGERNAILS lacks some of the sharpness of the insights packaged in APPLES. However, where the strength of FINGERNAILS lies is in its similarly sharp presentation of how modern technology and societal pressure can undermine essential human connection. As a couple stand at a plane window to share a skydive – one obviously terrified – the cold and rational explanation of how it may boost their score sits at odds with the concept of a good old-fashioned ‘bonding experience’. As a couple mechanically describe their efforts to have sex regularly for a prescribed minimum time, it is in service of a quantifiable result rather than building emotional intimacy through spontaneous desire.
Ahmed and Buckey’s performances are engaging and superbly pitched to the tone Nikou establishes. A wonderful segment in Amir’s car – where he tries to wrestle the window into submission from the driver’s seat while she steers from the passenger seat – is an apt metaphor for their relationship and the film’s idea of love: they are working perfectly in harmony, but it’s also messy and inelegant.
FINGERNAILS doesn’t quite reach the memorably comic and painful heights of APPLES or THE LOBSTER (from Yorgos Lanthimos, for whom Nikou has previously served as assistant director). Still, it does have something to say about modernity’s continual perversion of the human experience and the need to dissect, categorise, and package it. Romance is far from dead, but FINGERNAILS takes a forlorn look at what might kill it.