Directed by Christos Nikou | Written by Nikou, Sam Steiner and Stavros Raptis | 113 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | Apple TV+
For a lot of us secular folk, love is the last vestige of spirituality in our lives — if you don’t count astrology.
This movie imagines an alternate but completely recognizable world where a test has been invented to determine if it’s true love with your partner, if the relationship will work out in the long run. “No divorce,” the ads promise. All it requires is the couple each lose a fingernail.
Jesse Buckley is Anna, a teacher looking for work who ends up finding a gig at a company, The Institute of Love, that helps clients prep for the test. Anna refuses to tell her partner, Ryan (Jeremy Allen White), who she’s clearly devoted to, about her new job, and the movie leaves her motivations a mystery for a long time. They’ve taken the test together, and they’re positive. Why would she hide this from him — unless she’s having doubts? But how could that be? The test is a guarantee!
At her job she meets Amir (Riz Ahmed), who she gets along with well — he has a partner, too, Natasha (Annie Murphy). The delightfully deadpan Luke Wilson plays the company founder.
The sci-fi concept isn’t a far cry from something in Black Mirror, though not nearly as laced with dread. It’s maybe closer to The Lobster, but not as aggressively absurd. (Nikou is a Greek filmmaker, so maybe Yorgos Lanthimos is an influence.) What the movie is really about is how we trust technology to provide order in our lives, including our ability to communicate and connect with others, which can actually undermine faith in ourselves.
It’s not without a few plausibility issues — I mean, why the fingernail, and why is it removed without anaesthetic? If you’re either genuinely in love with someone or not, how does preparing for the test improve your chances of it being positive? And why is it so obviously shot in Toronto — a shout-out to the Lakeview Lunch — but playing Anywhere, USA?
(I’m joking about the last question. That’s been happening for 30 years. The director shot it on 35mm film, which gives the city, and the whole production, a marked warmth, even with all that grey, wintry light. You may even see some of the flaws in the film stock, a few moments of imperfect technological nostalgia.)
The picture has a dry, awkward humour that makes it more of a charmer than the premise might suggest, and the key cast are terrific — the slow-burn chemistry between Ahmed and Buckley is fun to see with both of them going to some effort to underplay what they’re feeling.
What surprised me about the picture is how successful it is in its payoff — for the first two acts it’s a bit slow going, but the final half hour, where certain truths are revealed, that’s where Fingernails reaches into your chest — and this superb cast and their director delivers something profound.