Can we call it a romcom? Given that Christos Nikou’s new film is entirely about what it means to fall in love, it must be a sort of romance. And it has laughs, albeit of kinds not usually associated with the genre: absurdities, toe-curling embarrassments, some jolts of body horror that get a gasp and then a shocked guffaw from the audience. You’re never going to mistake Fingernails for a Nora Ephron movie. Though Nikou, who wrote the script with Stavros Raptis and Sam Steiner as well as directing, doesn’t see himself as part of the Greek Weird Wave, he draws from the same well as Yorgos Lanthimos and his cohort. His film believes in love, for sure, but its sense of humour is as pleasingly sideways as Jessie Buckley’s slow grin.
On top of that, Fingernails is also a sort of sci-fi, if at a very low-tech level. Buckley plays Anna, a young woman torn between two men in a parallel universe where this kind of confusion has been designated impossible. Time and place are kept vague – somewhere in North America, possibly the 1990s, judging by Anna’s fluffy mohair jumpers and nostalgic fondness for Yazoo – but wherever we are, there are no mobile phones or dating apps. Instead, there is a ‘scientific’ solution to the everlasting search for The One: a machine, looking like a microwave oven, that cooks up a ‘reading’ from two people’s fingernails, freshly pulled with pliers in a queasily funny bit of bureaucratic torture, then pronounces whether their owners are ‘in love’ or not.
Anna was a primary school teacher until her workplace closed. She lives with the amiable Ryan (Jeremy Allen White, star of Chicago sandwich-shop comedy The Bear, 2022-), who has a nondescript managerial job and likes to cry at nature programmes. Three years earlier, they were tested by the omniscient machine and pronounced 100 per cent in love. So why doesn’t she tell Ryan that her new job is at the Love Institute, market leader in the fingernail-baking field? Nikou’s script rides over this and other plot potholes smoothly; his characters are so vividly close to our lives, his warped world so paradoxically familiar, that we are lulled into complacency. A little like Ryan, in fact.
You can’t get people to fall for each other, explains fatherly Duncan (Luke Wilson), Anna’s new boss, as he plays absent-mindedly with a couple of Lego dolls he is trying to make connect over tennis: “That would be ridiculous.” What the Institute does is train couples to maximise their bonds, then tests them. What is striking – and this is the core subject of Nikou’s velvet-gloved but unsettling lampoon – is how keen people are to have a decision about their relationship handed to them, even as they nurse their bandaged fingers. If machine says No, you’re not in love after all, they break up on the spot. They don’t have to; they just don’t want to be in the wrong.
Newbie Anna is paired with experienced trainer Amir (Riz Ahmed), learning to supervise bonding parachute jumps, bonding karaoke (in French, la langue d’amour) and bonding sniff-tests, in which blindfolded partners must identify each other by smell. Anna tries some exercises on Ryan without telling him what they are. Let’s draw each other, she says winningly. Let’s do pottery! We see their hands merge with the clay on the wheel just like – sigh! – Demi and Patrick in Ghost (1990). Except Ryan hasn’t seen that movie, obviously. “Why are we doing this?” he asks. “It’s sticky.”
There’s their problem. Ryan is a nester; she is a quester. Whatever their bloodied nails said, she has far more in common with Amir, who like her can jump from melancholy to giggling enthusiasm in a heartbeat. He stops behind her door to listen to her sing as she works; she watches through a sea of partygoers as he dances. As in every romcom, you see exactly where this is going; the satisfaction lies in seeing that promise fulfilled.
Unlike other romcoms, however, Nikou’s thoughtful, slippery film has a tragic edge: all that suffering, all that delusion just to struggle to this point – and two superb dramatic actors, working in perfectly attuned harmony, to bring it home. It breaks the bounds of the genre to ask real questions about what love is, how it works, how we recognise it. A definition remains elusive, but one thing is for sure: the machine doesn’t have a clue.
► Fingernails is in UK cinemas on 3 November and will be available to stream on Apple TV+.