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A Movie That Considers Love’s Unknowability

A Movie That Considers Love’s Unknowability

In the world of the new movie Fingernails, any two people who believe they have fallen in love can take a test to prove it. It’s simple enough: Each partner must rip out a fingernail, wait a few minutes for a microwavelike contraption to inspect it, and voilà! A result. A 100 percent score means a perfect match—and peace of mind. Fifty percent indicates that only one person is in love. And zero? Well, you know.

It’s the kind of kooky premise that brings to mind the techno-fables of Black Mirror and Yorgos Lanthimos’s satirical, dystopian romance The Lobster. But Fingernails, now streaming on Apple TV+, is not easy to classify. The Greek director Christos Nikou’s first English-language feature is neither a sci-fi parable with a body-horror bent nor a deconstruction of the romantic comedy. Rather, it’s a cheeky, gentle, and gracefully performed meditation on that perennially maddening question: What the hell is love anyway?

That’s what the protagonist, Anna (played by Jessie Buckley), is constantly thinking about. She’s one of the lucky few who tested 100 percent with her husband, Ryan (The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White), yet she’s also, several years into their marriage, wondering whether they’re still in love now that their days have become so routine. Restless and anxious about their prospects, she takes a job at the Love Institute, which administers the fingernail test. There, she meets Amir (Riz Ahmed), her assigned mentor, and a crush blossoms in her heart.

But Fingernails isn’t setting up a love triangle in which the tension comes from the question of whom Anna will choose. Instead, the characters’ differing perspectives on how love works long-term drives the film forward: Anna thinks it’s romantic that some couples retake the test; to her, relationships require constant work and reexamination. Ryan, assured by the positive result he and Anna once received, is comfortable and would rather not change a thing. Amir, meanwhile, has never achieved a perfect score, but believes intimacy can be  engineered. Of course, no one is entirely right, and no one is entirely wrong. The film, then, is its own test for the viewer, a mischievous brainteaser that challenges preconceived notions of commitment.

Given its premise, Fingernails seems to exist in the near future, but it’s strangely retro too. Car windows have to be manually rolled down, and nobody owns a mobile phone. Much of the story takes place in what appears to be never-ending autumn—everyone dressed in cozy sweaters, a golden-hour glow cast upon their faces—yielding a feeling both familiar and fantastical. The film has fun underlining how love-story tropes influence our ideas of courtship: The local theater plays a Hugh Grant–movie marathon because “no one understands love more,” and couples are encouraged to speak French, because it’s considered the most erotic language. Anna’s job, to help Amir design and carry out exercises for couples hoping to improve their potential result, also toys with such clichés. Most of the tests they conduct are absurd, including one that administers shocks when a partner exits the room, to simulate separation anxiety. Yet their subjects tend to participate anyway. Pain is nothing to them if it guarantees lasting happiness.

At times, Fingernails can be a bit too on the nose, too cutesy in its (rather heteronormative) study of love, but the wonderfully layered central performances keep the film grounded. Buckley imbues Anna with a sweet naivete and yearning as she begins to understand her feelings for Amir, while White conveys Ryan’s steady affection even as he struggles to grasp why his wife wants him to change. Ahmed is especially excellent, a world of uncertainty etched across his face as he realizes, too, that his exercises—and the love test itself—may be insufficient. For all its whimsy, Fingernails is delicately profound. Its characters aren’t making bold romantic moves; they’re interrogating their assumptions of what is ultimately an unknowable phenomenon.

In that sense, the film has more in common with this year’s Past Lives, the indie that explored the intricacies of both platonic and romantic love, than with anything high-concept. There is no grand revelation, no epiphany, no easy answer awaiting the ensemble on-screen. In one subtly poignant scene, Anna hums Yazoo’s “Only You” while Amir watches. The song, with its simple lyrics somehow conveying deep sentiment, exemplifies the film’s apparent point: Love is a fragile, intangible bundle of contradictions—something at once beautiful and terrible, invigorating and agonizing, joyful and melancholy. And yet, Fingernails suggests, it’s something to which we’ll endlessly ascribe platitudes and try to pin down anyway.

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