There’s a sick joke at the centre of the otherwise straight-faced new romantic drama Fingernails, which is this: In order to determine if you’ve met your soulmate, you have to have one of your fingernails torn out. Talk about doing anything for love, right?
Couples in this not-too-distant future – which looks like the present, or even the past with its use of analog technology – visit the Love Institute, a counselling centre that specialises in activities to increase the bond of love between partners. You know, like tandem skydiving and underwater staring contests. They don’t have to engage in these activities, but otherwise it’s straight to the test, which entails having a fingernail – any nail of your choosing – torn out. Your partner does the same, and then the two nails are placed in a microwave-safe tray and cooked for a minute to achieve compatibility results. It’s not actually a microwave and they are not actually cooking, but that’s the best description of what the machine looks like.
After that minute or so, the machine yields the results: 100% means you both love each other, 50% percent means one loves the other (though does not specify which) and you can guess what 0% means. Couples use this information to decide on the wisdom of staying together, and it’s meant to save years of wasted time among two people who don’t love each other but don’t have the guts to end the relationship. You’d think an honest conversation would save some needless rending of flesh.
The dystopian nature of this quest for romantic efficiency is pushed to the background in Fingernails, to its detriment. Had director Christos Nikou leaned a bit more into the absurdity of this procedure, it might have better established the film’s perspective on what this technology is hoping to accomplish. On the one hand, a “scientific” test that proves the existence of love is useful in getting people on course toward the best possible relationship during their marriageable and child-bearing years. On the other, the mere threat of such a test should get people being honest with themselves. Couples who think they are happy should just be happy with that, and not need a certificate to prove it – not to mention one fewer fingernail for the time it takes to grow back.
The particulars do create interesting questions, though. The central character is Anna (Jessie Buckley), who has had her relationship to Ryan (Jeremy Allen White) validated by a test some three years in the past. It’s “proof” that at this moment in time, genuine love existed between them. However, that also allowed complacency to take root, as people tend not to worry about external threats to relationships validated by this test. Conspicuously, they have not yet progressed to marriage.
When the former school teacher takes a job at the Love Institute – telling Ryan she’s accepted another position at a primary school – she starts to have feelings for one of the counsellors, Amir (Riz Ahmed). She’s a believer in the technology, but not, it would seem, in the permanence of the condition it tests for. One might ask what’s the point of disfiguring yourself if you are only measuring a particular moment in time. More than anything she just wants to study the vagaries of love.
“The test doesn’t work, you dummy” would be an obvious conclusion except Fingernails doesn’t consider it as simple as that. For one, it was developed by a person who is not portrayed as a charlatan, played by a bearded Luke Wilson with maximum hangdog earnestness. But the issues explored only have any heft if we do believe the test results are trustworthy.
Nikou’s film fails to be all it can be due to the aforementioned looseness of the perspective. Fingernails stimulates these conversations but doesn’t want to put too fine a point on any one discussion point, leaving a foggy impression of what it’s trying to accomplish in any single moment. Remaining within a grainy realism the whole time, Nikou doesn’t appear to be shooting for the romantic melancholy of something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another film that relies on fantastical low-fi technology to cure relationship woes. However, without that film’s grand gestures, Fingernails sort of trudges along for certain stretches, failing to make the impression it should.
And yet its deeper questions still nag at us, ultimately making Fingernails a test worth undergoing. If you could obtain a definitive scientific analysis of your relationship and its prospects for success, would you do it? Or is love always going to be vague and destined to disappoint us as often as it enriches us?
Fingernails is currently playing in cinemas and streaming on AppleTV+.