The passing pleasures of watching the fine young actors Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed and Jeremy Allen White can’t make up for the increasing distaste that develops from contact with Fingernails, an irritating and, finally, ridiculous examination of relationship matchmaking carried far too far. Greek director Christos Nikou won unanimous critical plaudits for his compellingly eerie debut feature Apples, which dealt with amnesia patients, and here again he appears drawn to troubled and mysterious states of mind that develop in the quest for love, commitment and some sense of security in modern life. The film debuted at the Telluride Film Festival and screened at the Toronto Film Festival.
If love means never having to say you’re sorry, as the 1970 smash hit Love Story ridiculously proclaimed, then the by-word for this new exploration of modern amour should be that love means letting your would-be soulmate yank all your fingernails out. How the main characters finally arrive at this extreme state is the main point of curiosity in this nicely acted and, for a while, passably intriguing drama.
Nothing seems amiss at first. Anna (Buckley) and Ryan (White) are an attractive young couple who have worked at the Love Institute for three years and still score 100% on the “Love Institute” scale. What’s holding them back from getting hitched at this point remains unclear, but somehow you sense that it has something to do with fingernails (and not the polish).
What the institute promises are things like “No More Uncertainty” and “No More Divorce,” and its testing is designed to confirm a couple’s compatibility.
Why Anna and Ryan can’t accept the verdict that they’re made for each other and just get married already isn’t entirely clear — in fact, it’s not clear at all. But something’s up with Anna, who takes a job at a “love hotel” and eventually falls for Amir (Riz Ahmed), a trainer at the institute. Apparently, scoring 100% on the commitment scale isn’t what it used to be.
Due to these oddities, and even more to Anna’s new distraction, the film drifts off in a direction that never becomes very interesting, all the moreso because her sudden object of interest doesn’t fit with anything that’s come before. Then arrives the big scene of wholesale toenail yanking, which will likely prove edifying, appealing and/or interesting to about 0.10 percent of the audience. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s revolting.
What we’re to make of all this remains quite mysterious, elusive, out of reach and likely to remain so. What motivated Nikou to make this particular film, which is rather robustly repellent, rather than something keyed a bit more to real-life situations and readable characters, is similarly unapparent. Yes, the director has obvious gifts that we’ve seen before and which surface momentarily even in this miscalculation. Still, why he chose this off-putting material for his American debut, especially with its grotesque climax, is a real head-scratcher.
Festival: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Distributor: Apple TV+
Director: Christos Nikou
Screenwriters: Christos Nikou, Sam Steiner, Stavros Raptis
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed, Jeremy Allen White, Annie Murphy, Luke Wilson
Running time: 1hr 53 min