Toronto 2023 Review: FINGERNAILS, Love (And Cinema) Fails By Playing It Safe
It is a solid time-wasting (and futile) exercise looking at couples and making a judgement call if they are ‘right for one another.’ Or to guess if they will ‘last.’ In my family, it is kind of a sport. Well guess no more. In the near future a technology has been commercialized and popularized, that quantitatively predicts a love match between couples. Essentially, by extracting a fingernail from each person, and zapping them together in a microwave oven in a petri dish, the analysis of the smokey residue is done via a computer terminal resembling a 1984 Macintosh computer, where the percentage spat out determines how compatible are the couple. According to the opening text, visual spotting on fingernails is a sign of heart disease. Heart disease. Love. Get it?
For a movie about people willingly have fingernails pulled off with pliers, Fingernails is a rather vanilla affair. A thin distillation of Greek Weird cinema, of which director, Christos Nikou (Apples), should be very familiar, as he was assistant director on Yorgos Lanthimos’ seminal, Dogtooth.
If the results are 100% match, then a certificate is printed, and the couple is sent on its way to marital bliss and certitude. It is, in a way, the horror-movie endpoint of dating apps — although none of that is mined or even much considered here, not in any interesting way at least. All is glossed over with light exposition to the effect that matchmaking has been optimized, relationships are now certified, and divorce has been eliminated.
The cardinal sin of Fingernails, perhaps, is wasting a pair of chemistry-rich performances from two thoroughbred actors, both currently at height in their career ascendence: Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed. It is rather painful to see two actors delivering, on a script that is far beneath either of their time or effort. But there are others more mild crimes, or at least unintended ironies. At one point, the movie gently mocks Hugh Grant rom-coms of the 1990s and early 2000s, by saying, “What in a love story actually feels safe, actual love does not.” And then it proceeds to make the blandest, safest workplace romance movie possible. Buckley’s quirky half-smile goes a long way, but only so far.
Anna (Buckley) is supposedly one of the ‘lucky’ ones who has a 100% match with her boyfriend (The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White), a feckless homebody who is so comfortable in their relationship he essentially does absolutely nothing of interest. Ever. The movie postulates that staying home and watching TV with your significant other is a tacit admission of giving up (but fails to realise that in today’s world, watching TV is the height or romance compared to watching separate screens in bed facing away from one another with headphones on, but I digress.) I mean, the film is produced by Apple, so I guess a scene like that (or god forbid a version of it featuring Cupertino’s Orwellian Vision Pro VR headset) is not going to make it to final cut or onto their streaming service.
Either way, Anna gets a new job at The Institute, a consulting firm that offers courses to maximize the chances of a love match before prospective couples yank off their nails for testing. She is assigned by her boss (Luke Wilson in the most Luke Wilson role ever, and that is saying something considering Idiocracy) to job shadow Amir (Ahmed) as he walks his client-couples through a series of coursework modules that are both weird (a staring contest underwater) and facile (singing karaoke, but only in French) designed to ‘enhance’ the coupling secret-sauce before the real test. Think The Lobster, but take away all the jeopardy and stakes and replace it with corporate SAT prep-work.
As Anna and Amir try to help others game the system, they feel a certain spark. Of course they do a test together. Of course it yields not the expected results. Of course she takes some long, thoughtful walks through leafy Toronto neighbourhoods, at the peak of the fall colours. Canada is where the movie is shot, and might be set, and that makes a kind of sense, as affluent, professional Torontonians tend towards an optimized kind of blandness. But here, filmmaking algorithms and romance by optimisation are an ugly pathology. One where art muddles its way towards simply being ‘con-tent.’ The mediocre middle, and Fingernails sits on that particular fence, will always be worse than high art or low trash.
More fingernails down the chalkboard than fingernails down the small of the back (sorry, sorry, I know, I know) Fingernails thuds home the most obvious movie message in the history of obvious movie messages: That relationships are not a certificate, nor are ever a done deal. There is opportunity after opportunity to make take the scenario in strange places that this film simply ignores or squanders. At one point the microwave-machine malfunctions and ruins the samples. What would a company do, ask rip of more fingernails and say, Oops? Elsewhere, it would have been far more interesting if Anna’s boyfriend was attractive or interesting, and her choices might have some heft or consequences. It is all too easy to dump the moaning couch potato (who cannot even make the wet and slippery pottery scene from Ghost spark the mood together) for a sexy, funny, and sharply dressed Riz Ahmed. Especially while Yazoo’s Don’t Go (or was it Only You? It might have been both) plays on the turntable.
Needle drops are not the films strong suit either. Of the two films that were released this year, both shot on 35mm film, and have the lead actor sing Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, you should probably find and watch Léa Mysius's The Five Devils, which is better looking, far smarter, and takes actual, even dangerous, chances with the narrative and storytelling.
- Christos Nikou
- Christos Nikou
- Stavros Raptis
- Sam Steiner
- Jeremy Allen White
- Annie Murphy
- Jessie Buckley