“The earliest signs of heart problems are often found in the spotting, bending, or discoloration of fingernails,” reads the quote that opens Apple TV’s latest sci-fi offering. It’s but a partial explanation of the film’s unconventional title: the premise of Fingernails is actually much more literal (and painful) than one might think. In the near-future, fingernails are also the key to intangible matters of the heart — even to the question of compatibility. Lucky couples each surrender one nail in order to determine whether they’re really in love. The process, conduced without anesthesia, borderlines on torture. But it’s framed as a necessary evil, the only way to ensure you’re not wasting your time with the person you think is the love of your life.
The results are quaintly analog (either both couples are in 100% love, neither are, or one is harboring unrequited affection), though writer-director Christos Nikou isn’t all that interested in exploring the potential complications therein. By the time we meet Anna (Jessie Buckley), one of its few success stories, the Love Test has been around for five controversial years, and it’s quietly shaped society into a chaste and clinical new normal. Less than half the couples that take the test get a positive result; those that remain are forced to re-examine their ideas and attitudes towards love.
Attraction and lust are now ideals of a bygone era. Scientific security has replaced romantic instinct on the hierarchy of needs — even for Anna and her partner Ryan (Jeremy Allen White), who achieved that coveted 100% three years ago. They’re two of the lucky ones, though Anna still feels like something’s missing. That intangible “spark” that would once make or break a bond is all but extinct between them, and it’s the same with most couples they know. But that’s exactly what makes Anna’s unspoken attraction to Amir (Riz Ahmed), such a wrench in the spokes... or, at least, it ought to.
Fingernails uses the concept of romance to build an atmospheric, inescapable sense of irony. If not for its unnerving premise, it’d slip seamlessly into the canon of tender (if offbeat) narratives that take their cues from Charlie Kaufman. The film has both the look and feel of a traditional rom-com, from its autumnal, ambiguous cityscape to its commitment to retro-futurustic tech. Radio stations play back-to-back blocks of soft rock for jilted lovers, cinemas program Hugh Grant movie marathons. To borrow an infamous Grant-ism, love actually is all around. If only it could be felt.
The Love Institute — a facility that prepares couples for the Test — is the very thing keeping this new world running smoothly. Perhaps that’s why Anna wants desperately to work there. Her approach to romantic partnership is quietly at odds with her partner’s: Ryan is content with the mere idea of being A Couple In Love, while Anna believes in putting in “the work,” whatever that entails. She gets a job at the Institute in order to strengthen their bond, and finds an ideal match in Amir, an instructor equally interested in streamlining the pursuit of love.
Anna, of course, finds herself gravitating towards Amir. In a world supposedly devoid of chemistry, their connection is undeniable, sold entirely with stolen glances and subtext. Their mutual attraction doesn’t create a love triangle so much as it inspires some truly gut-wrenching yearning, and that’s probably for the best: it’s a concept that’s become increasingly trite in any genre. It helps that each member of Nikou’s trio harbor such childlike ideas about love, which imbues familiar melodrama with a fresh air of innocence. But it may also strip the film of the stakes it needs to really make a statement.
As Anna finds herself torn between two impossible choices, Fingernails comes close to answering the existential questions at its core. Is something like the Test inherently bad? Is it necessary in the grand scheme? You have to wonder why no one has ever questioned the efficacy of it, and whether Anna will eventually be the one to do so. Her understanding of the world, however, is inextricable from all that the Institute has taught her. On some level, her naïveté does work. It could be Nikou’s way of challenging the systems we use to measure love, from our reliance on dating apps to the institution of marriage itself. But Anna’s complacency is also indicative of the flaws that undermine Fingernails. The film sets its star-crossed couple up as the leaders of a quiet revolution, but they’re all too happy to remain exactly where they are: observing but never connecting, pining for each other but never acting on that emotion.
It’s here that Fingernails falls into the trap plaguing so many recent observations of man versus machine. The status quo is overwhelming and everywhere, but no one seems interested in unsubscribing. Again, this savors strongly of our own dependence on technology. But Anna’s efforts to follow her heart result in baffling choices (and a bit of off-screen body horror). The message here is muddled, and decidedly devoid of the passion that could eventually break the cycle.
Fingernails wants to provide an answer to the dilemma of head versus heart, but it never takes a clear stance in either camp. Nikou’s dark, offbeat humor lends itself well to irony, but the film still lacks a sense of urgency — and it discovers the statement it wants to make a bit too late.
We’ve always relied on a binary worldview to make sense of our most nebulous concepts, and science or law to corral unwieldy matters of the heart. Fingernails comes close to challenging our conflict between logic and instinct, but Buckley and Ahmed’s mutual yearning, however swoon-worthy, can only take this thesis so far.