The heart’s role in romance is more than just metaphor in the sweetly sick sci-fi romance Fingernails, which begins with a quote from an unknown scientist: “The earliest signs of heart problems are often found in the spotting, bending, or discoloration of fingernails.” In the near-future world of Fingernails, that connection means that nails can be used to test whether a couple is truly in love, either validating their relationship or sending them into spirals of doubt. Yet clippings aren’t enough for the test; you have to have your entire nail ripped off to know for sure, an experience quite comparable to literal torture (take from that what you will).
Anna (Jessie Buckley) and Ryan (Jeremy Allen White) scored a rare perfect score of 100 when they got tested three years ago. That number means that they’re both in love with each other, instead of a 0% (neither person loves the other) or an even worse 50% (the love is unrequited). Ryan is perfectly content with their 100 and their relationship, but Anna has begun to question if they’d still get that score years later as they’ve settled into their routine (or rut). Her curiosity leads her to take a job at the The Love Institute, which offers not only the test but also training so couples are more likely to get that coveted 100. There, she trains alongside coworker Amir (Riz Ahmed), who devises the exercises that help bring a couple closer pre-test. However, as Anna spends more time with Amir, she discovers a connection with him and wonders what their results might be.
Fingernails plumbs similar veins to other darkly comic speculative films that use futuristic technology to comment on the nature of love and romance in the present world. It bears passing resemblance to Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but it’s not as dark as the former or as wildly creative as the latter. However, it is sufficiently thought-provoking in its questions about how we want to quantify or demystify love, how relationships require ongoing work, and what we’ll risk for romantic stability and certainty. It’s slyly funny, more likely to evoke a smirk or a quiet giggle than an outright guffaw, but still largely enjoyable for most of its running time — you know, other than when characters are getting their fingernails yanked off with pliers. It may not have the bite of The Lobster, but it does still sting at times, due to both the physical violence and the metaphorical heartache on screen.
This is Greek writer-director Christos Nikou’s English-language debut after 2020’s Apples, but his first feature credit was on his countryman Lanthimos’ absurdist nightmare Dogtooth as a second assistant director. Fingernails isn’t quite as unsettling or deeply weird as that 2009 movie; Nikou’s film more closely resembles The Lobster, especially in its commentary on how the world is structured around couples. Yet his own earlier below-the-line work seems to inform Fingernails too. Nikou was also an AD on Richard Linklater’s Greece-shot Before Midnight, the rare movie to address what happens after the initial spark of love fades. Fingernails doesn’t just deal with Anna’s newfound attraction to Amir; it also handles how she and Ryan may have grown apart in the years since they took the test together. If you were in love once, is that all that matters? Or does it require choosing the other person each day and working to stay together? These questions are interesting, but Fingernails itself grows monotonous in its last act (or maybe I just couldn’t handle any more nails being removed).
Fingernails isn’t purely a fascinating concept structured around big ideas and a trio of nuanced performances from Buckley, Ahmed, and White; Nikou also brings a distinct style to the proceedings. Though set in a vague near-future, its aesthetic is pleasingly retro, with autumnal colors and old-school-looking tech that point to the ‘70s and early ‘80s. This is the type of film that could easily run cold with a clinical assessment of love, but there’s warmth and life in both its tone and its visuals. Costume designer Bina Daigeler (Tár) has clad everyone in nubby wools, lending a coziness to the overall look. Music supervisor Rob Lowry takes a similar approach for the soundtrack, with sweet, old-school favorites like The Flying Pickets’ cover of “Only You.”
Fingernails won’t satisfy both hearts and minds at the level of its masterful predecessors, but Nikou has written and directed a moving, thought-provoking film. This is a movie for people who like their cinematic romances dark, complicated, and off-kilter—and who can handle seeing fingernails pulled, or at least can look away. These actors make that difficult; you want to see every moment of their performances, even under the threat of watching torture.
“Fingernails” is in theaters now, and streams on Apple TV+ on Friday.