As part of our coverage of the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Meg Shields reviews the thoroughly aggravating “sci-fi” romance ‘Fingernails’ starring Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed. Follow along with more coverage in our Toronto International Film Festival archives.
It’s the not-too-distant future, and a new invention has completely changed the way that we think and commit to romantic partnerships. A test has been developed that can prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you and your partner are in love. For the measly price of one fingernail each, the mysterious (and definitely trustworthy) black box will tell you if you and your partner are 100% head over heels, 50% committed, or if neither of you have your hearts in the game.
Our heroine is Anna (Jessie Buckley), an elementary school teacher who has settled into a cozy routine with her husband Ryan (The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White). The pair received a positive test years ago, but faced with the same-ness of her day-to-day, Anna begins questioning if this is what she really wants. Keeping Ryan in the dark (a good sign, surely), Anna gets a job at a training institute that claims to help deepen couples’ feelings for each other in anticipation of the test. While shadowing the charming Amir (Riz Ahmed), Anna begins to develop feelings for her coworker, cementing her suspicion that her marriage isn’t as rock-solid as the test results claim it to be.
Word on the street is that, at its post-screening Q&A, writer-director Christos Nikou claimed to be neither a fan of horror movies nor sex scenes. While I could have told you that from watching a movie so toothless it nearly gummed me to death, it does beg the question: why make a film about ripping off fingernails to tell if you’re in love if you don’t have the stomach for anything fleshy, corporeal, or messy?
The bluntness of the metaphor (that love is painful but worthwhile), is lost when you shy away from the entire point you’re trying to make. This is The Lobster for cowards. And it’s a damn shame that Nikou didn’t manage to learn more from Yorgos Lanthimos while assistant-directing Dogtooth.
While its premise was suspect from the start, I sincerely wish that someone with a spine had directed this poor excuse for a sci-fi romance; that we’d been forced to watch uncut shots of yanked nails; that physical pleasure felt like something that was an option in this world obsessed with romance; or that Buckley’s agent would finally book her a good movie.
Fingernails was shot on film, seemingly for no reason other than to trick you into thinking that it is a better movie than it is. Marcell Rév, blink twice if you need help, there’s got to be a better way to keep the analog tradition alive. To its credit, Fingernails looks like cinema. But it feels like a gargantuan waste of time; bloated to a nearly two-hour runtime to reach a conclusion we all could see coming a mile away. Namely: that trusting a machine to quantify love might not be that reliable, actually. A bold thesis, it must be said, from an Apple TV+ venture, of all things.
Conspicuously, the film is almost completely devoid of any couples who aren’t cisgender and heterosexual. If this is a choice — to perhaps gesture towards the apocryphal lower divorce rates of queer couples — it is poorly executed. The idea that only cis-het couples would fall for something as patently stupid as a machine that uses fingernails to verify your love is, it must be said, very funny, even if unintentionally so. That said, it’s suspicious that the one time we see the machine break down is while Anna and Ahmir are testing two gay men. It’s an eyebrow-raising choice, to say the least.
All told I will gladly rip off a fingernail if it means never having to watch or think about this insulting waste of celluloid ever again. If only there were some kind of visceral, body-horror adjacent metaphor for what watching this movie was like…
Fingernails is currently scheduled for a November 3rd, 2023 release date, in case, you know, you want to rubberneck at this car wreck.