Fingernails is a narratively void and unfulfilling science-fiction melodrama from Christos Nikou starring Riz Ahmed and Jessie Buckley that only scratches the surface of what it’s trying to say.
In an alternate society, love is finally quantifiable. Partners undergo analysis of their fingernails to see whether one or both are in love wholly with the other.
Fingernails was screened as part of the official selection of the BFI London Film Festival 2023.
Anna (Jessie Buckley), a trained teacher, is offered a position at the love institute to provide a new service focussed on couples to deepen their bond and unify their love before they undergo the test. Applying her learnings at home with partner Ryan (Jeremy Allen White) and under the mentorship of Amir (Riz Ahmed), Anna begins questioning whether her love for Ryan is still positive, having passed the test early on in their relationship, or if in fact, she is starting to develop feelings for Amir.
Christos Nikou is inspired by the biting black comedy associated with Yorgos Lanthimos, having previously trained under the other Greek director’s guidance. Acting as second assistant director and script supervisor on ‘Dogtooth‘, it’s evident throughout Fingernails how inspired Nikou was by Lanthimos’ teachings, so much so that Fingernails tonally and narratively is attempting to homage ‘The Lobster‘ constantly. However, its delivery insults Lanthimos’ proven masterful weaving of the story.
For instance, Riz Ahmed’s Amir is interested in the portrayal of love in cinema, with its conventions of the romance genre being highly improbable. His delivery to Buckley’s Anna serves as a sarcastic mock yet fails ever to acknowledge their manipulation of patterns for the same purpose.
An example of this is the meet-cute. A phrase describing the first moment two star-crossed lovers meet. A moment where the pair are so unready for their meet, and yet, as the music swells, our hearts follow suit, understanding and imagining the journey they are to go on.
In Fingernails, Anna and Amir’s meet-cute takes place in a stairwell as they have to navigate a tight passing space whilst forepersons move a gigantic painting of two clowns in the background up the stairs. Under any normal circumstances, this commentary on the meet-cute being so orchestrated would have landed. We, the audience, are the clowns, metaphorically willing them together. Except, in Fingernails, everything in its world-building showcases how watertight this institute is. Its purpose, on a global scale, is orchestrating, encouraging, and maintaining love to prevent another societal collapse.
Run by Duncan (Luke Wilson), the institute is his brainchild. Subjects are played pop music in French, whilst rain sounds echo throughout the building to encourage them subconsciously to fall in love, with the patter of rainfall and the French language supposedly synonymous with romance. To be so exact with his world-building like this, it makes little sense why Nikou made a reductionist joke at the meet-cute convention when his film is self-acknowledging of them.
The lack of clarity from Nikou is entirely the film’s unravelling. Whilst its story is fine, and the performances from Ahmed and Buckley are convincing, the absence of intrigue in the plot is laughable despite offering glimpses of a promising story, with a short role by Annie Murphy and a ponderous sequence around our scents.
As such, the film is a half-baked attempt at trying to do something interesting, but its ideas must be revised and developed. Instead, I propose that the story had a more substantial, resolutive option, which it should have presented.
A hypothetical second act would have engaged audiences and rewarded us for attention-seeking and exploring the world-building that Nikou had set out for us. As an alternative to the story, I was waiting for the resolution that Duncan was orchestrating and coordinating Anna and Amir’s love from the beginning.
The science test Duncan was experimenting with wasn’t on the in-patients but on Anna and Amir. Up till then, all the patients had an understanding they were there to fall in love, but in Anna and Amir’s case, is their passion genuine or a product of the environment?
His institute is his baby, so it made sense that he had planned what goes on with his staff on a when-and-where basis, explaining the meet-cute painting in the stairwell. Further, despite having zero working experience at any love institute, Anna was hired by Duncan, assumedly as she was tested compatible with Amir before their pairing.
I’d even argue that in this alternate version where the story was comprehensive, Duncan was to blame for prolonging Anna and Amir’s wait at a red light whilst it down poured to spend more time in each other’s proximity. He encouraged Annie Murphy to step in as girlfriend material for a work-do, pushing Amir into realising how destined he and Anna were to be. He doctored the machine to break or altered the results to present a version of events closer to the narrative he wanted to tell.
Reviewing the film then for its delivery, rather than its promise, the dialogue between Amir and Anna could be cleaner with Buckley’s accent oddly redundant as Ahmed speaks in his English voice. Though it does at times offer the occasional poetic signifier for the experience of love, its heavy handed approach and misunderstanding of its own material is a devastation.
I wish it did more intellectually with what it had to offer because if Lanthimos can master it with ‘The Lobster‘, and if I can get a fraction of the way there in a few paragraphs, with attention, Fingernails could have scratched that itch about love and control, and where the lines blur.
Fingernails is screening as part of the programme for the BFI London Film Festival and is to be released on 3 November 2023 by Apple TV+.
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