THE STORY – Anna and Ryan have found true love, and it’s proven by a controversial new technology. There’s just one problem, as Anna still isn’t sure. Then she takes a position at a love testing institute and meets Amir.
THE CAST – Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed, Jeremy Allen White, Annie Murphy & Luke Wilson
THE TEAM – Christos Nikou (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 113 Minutes
Though we try to tell ourselves otherwise, love is not one thing to all people. Poets and artists have been trying to define it throughout the centuries to no avail, leaving behind thousands of pieces that describe what love can be, if not what it actually is. Love is not just romance. It is more than mere sexual attraction. It is an invisible thread that connects you to another person, one that will likely always be there but must be tended to in order to stay strong. Love is constantly evolving and ever-changing, but despite not having a singular definition, most people know it when they feel it. In the world of Christos Nikou’s “Fingernails,” though, scientists have found a way to test whether or not two people are in love: After removing one fingernail of each of the individuals in question, a machine scans the fingernails and returns a result: 100% means both individuals are in love, 0% means that neither are, and 50% means that only one is, although the test cannot determine who. If you had access to this test, would you take it? And would your attitude towards your relationship change at all based on the result?
Anna (Jessie Buckley) and Ryan (Jeremy Allen White) decided to take the test and got 100%. Since then, it’s clear that Ryan has grown somewhat complacent, using the test result as a defense whenever he’s not being the partner that Anna needs. In response, she has grown ever more distant and obsessed with The Love Institute, a clinic established by Duncan (Luke Wilson) to help couples get to that 100% by coming up with experimental activities to stimulate a biological love response. These activities include singing karaoke together in French (the most romantic language), shocking themselves when their partner leaves the house to equate physical pain with the emotional pain of them leaving, and staring into each other’s eyes while holding their breath underwater for a full minute. After taking a job at The Love Institute, Anna trains under Amir (Riz Ahmed), who has designed several of the tests the Institute uses (his latest involves couples seeing a romantic film in a theater that catches on fire at a specific moment, but he’s having trouble finding a theater that will agree to it). After spending so much time together while working with couples desperate to be in love with each other, Anna and Amir each find themselves charmed by the other and eventually begin to sense an attraction. But since they’re both supposedly in happy relationships – Anna with Ryan, Amir with his girlfriend Natasha (Annie Murphy) – what does this mean?
Science fiction has fiddled around with high-tech matchmaking for decades now, using the idea that love can be defined and even destined to comment on society’s expectations of love in dating and relationships. In the case of “Fingernails,” the main target seems to be the thing on the opposite side of the titular body part – our fingers, which spend all their time swiping and typing into matchmaking apps on our phones (technology that is conspicuously absent from the world of the film). In our constant quest for instant gratification and creating technology that can do everything for us, we have resigned ourselves to a life that may give us what we think we want but takes all the excitement out of it. In the world of the film, relationships end if the test results aren’t 100%, not because the two people aren’t happy together but because the test has declared that they do not love each other. Posters advertise a life with no more worry and no more divorce, which sounds nice but becomes worrying upon closer thought – just because two people are compatible doesn’t mean that they’re in love, and just because two people are in love doesn’t mean that they can make a life together work. But just because those things are true, does that mean people shouldn’t make a go of it anyway?
It’s easy to get caught up in the film’s ideas about love and relationships, largely because it makes these ideas palpably real through its main characters. Buckley brings a vulnerability to Anna that is deep in her bones; you can see how it weighs her body down by looking at how she lightens up whenever she is around Amir or working with two of their youngest clients at the Institute, whose relationship she has become attached to. When in the presence of love and romance, she seems like a different person, not the one weighed down by worry and loneliness. Ahmed is effortlessly charming as the soft-spoken Amir, demonstrating how sexy the simple act of listening to your partner can be. Both Anna and Amir have a moment of revelation when they realize there’s something between them, and both Buckley and Ahmed make those moments memorable, stopping dead in their tracks and looking as though their world has completely changed in that moment, aided by a shift in Christopher Stracey’s emotive score. White probably has the trickiest part, having to be believable as someone who isn’t currently the best partner but is a good and likable enough guy that it’s believable that Anna still loves him and wants to make their relationship work. He makes it work, though, bringing a soulfulness that comes through even when he’s brushing off Anna’s concerns.
The questions that “Fingernails” raises cut to the core of what makes us human. That grabby setup and lovingly-written characters ensure that the audience stays invested even though the film takes its time moving through somewhat standard romance beats. However, the details of the film’s story offer some genuine surprise and suspense. When Anna finally tests the fingernails of the young couple she and Amir have been working with, there is a thrilling sense of uncertainty because any of the three options could work for the film’s story. Nikou pulls the same trick twice when Anna sneaks in tests of her fingernails with Amir’s and Ryan’s. What will the results be? How will she feel about it? Any option seems possible, with each one having potentially devastating consequences. Watching “Fingernails” is to be put under the spell of a master storyteller doing something truly original. It opens up more ideas and paths for discussion than most other films, making you see and think about the world differently. The film’s pitch-perfect last line captures an essential truth about life and love: They hurt. But that pain is as essential a part of the human experience as happiness. Are we even living if we’re not willing to risk everything – including getting hurt – for a chance at happiness? Maybe not, but watching Amir, Anna, and Ryan go through the process of asking and answering that question provides the type of exhilaration that makes life worth living.