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TIFF23: Fingernails Puts Love Under the Microscope

Courtesy of TIFF

There must be something in the water in Greece. Christos Nikou, a fellow countryman of Yorgos Lanithmos, has created a bizarre love story similar to Lanthimos’ The Lobster. Sure, the film’s central theme is love, romance, and how essential these are to the human experience, but neither The Lobster nor Nikou’s Fingernails, a selection of the 2023 Toronto International Film festival, leaves the audience in a particularly warm and fuzzy mood. Except for those who aren’t bothered by watching people rip fingernails out with pliers.

Even though eyes are supposed to be windows to the soul, Nikou makes the case that it’s actually fingernails. In an undetermined time period, humanity has discovered that it’s possible to test the love between two people. The procedure involves ripping out a fingernail from each person, then putting the two fingernails into a retro-futuristic microwave-looking machine. The results can be 0%, 50%, or 100%, but if it’s 50%, there’s no way to tell which person is the one who’s in love. This test was meant to lower the divorce rate, but as one can imagine, chaos erupts once the test becomes widely available. Relationships are suddenly being put under a microscope and examined in a scientific manner. Some people, like Ryan (Jeremy Allen White) and Anna (Jessie Buckley), receive a 100% rating and they feel like a weight has been lifted off their shoulders. For others, the results are devastating.

Even though Ryan and Anna have already undergone the test, Anna has a nagging feeling that something is wrong with their relationship. She’s a teacher and decides to apply for a job at the Love Institute, an organization created by Duncan (Luke Wilson) to teach couples how to reach that 100% score. Anna is paired with Amir (Riz Ahmed) to learn the ropes of the various love-building activities. Almost immediately, Anna is disarmed by Amir’s charm and she’s forced to try to figure out if it’s possible to be in love with two people at the same time.

Anna and Amir crouch in front of the device
Courtesy of TIFF

The Lanthimos comparison is not without merit. Nikou was an assistant director on Lanthimos’ Dogtooth and the Greek film industry is not large, so their paths have likely crossed time and again. Because of this, Fingernails will inevitably be compared to The Lobster, a trap I fell into as well. Some people will use this comparison to take away from the impact of Fingernails, but that’s not the case. To limit seriocomedies about love is meaningless. Fingernails and The Lobster share some overlap, but Fingernails stands firmly on its own two feet. There is no one means of working through the complexity of love, and both films have their own merits. Both also make the case that love is only definable by those experiencing it.

What sets Fingernails apart is that the partnership isn’t forced, nor is taking the test. One of Anna and Ryan’s couple friends is adamant that they will never take it. They don’t need a machine to confirm what they already know. Another couple retakes the test after receiving a 100% because they worry they’ve fallen out of love after living together for so long. No matter where a person falls on the spectrum of their opinion of the test, it’s impossible to deny that this is a Pandora’s Box scenario. Until that test is taken, there’s a sort of peace for the couples. But that peace can be shattered when the computer spits out a result. Good or bad, once the test is taken, it’s impossible to go back to a time before that moment.

The production design of Fingernails is retro-futuristic, one that’s similar to Apple TV+’s Severance. The high-tech machine that can deduce love looks like a microwave from the 1970s. It has only one button and a few small blinking lights. This machine of the future has the distinct look of the past, and that speaks to Fingernails’ semi-old-fashioned ideas about love. Not in a heteronormative sense, but the idea of white-picket-fence Americana, where the pursuit of companionship may not always be a search for love. It might just be for convenience.

If the Fingernails runtime had been slightly shorter, it would be right at home in a good season of Black Mirror. Hang the DJ would be the anthology series’ closest comparison, but Fingernails is given the extra time to dig a little deeper into the messiness of relationships. The film wonders what it takes to stay in love with someone. Is it the love-bonding activities, like experiencing a fire in a movie theater in the middle of a Hugh Grant rom-com marathon? Is it shocking yourself with an electrical charge when your lover leaves? It’s refreshing to have a film portray romantic love as beautiful, but sometimes so lonely. In the end, the only answer Fingernails has to offer is that it doesn’t know much more about love than you or I do. Just find someone good to figure it out with.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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