Exploring the Science of Romance in “Fingernails” With Riz Ahmed

Anna (Buckley) takes a job at the Love Institute, training couples for a scientific soulmate test. Despite her perfect match with her boyfriend Ryan (White), Anna begins to fall for the Institute’s top instructor, the stoic and sad-eyed Amir (Ahmed).

Left: actress Jessie Buckley, laughing. Right: actor Riz Ahmed, looking at Buckley
Anna (Jessie Buckley) and Amir (Riz Ahmed) share an undeniable chemistry in "Fingernails."

If a test existed that could scientifically prove whether someone is your soulmate, would you take it? This is the question Christos Nikou proposes in his new sci-fi romantic drama “Fingernails” (2023). 

In Nikou's thought-provoking new film, a unique societal concept takes center stage. Instead of marriage, a printed test result determines a couple's level of love through machine-based mathematics. More specifically, a person and their partner can measure their affection for each other by each getting a fingernail pulled and put into a machine; the process tests whether either, neither or both of them are truly in love. “Fingernails” questions the validity of such systems and symbols we create to anchor our relationships. It unfolds in a world that's both timeless and familiar, with autumnal settings reminiscent of romantic comedies. This world places immense societal pressure on couples to take the test, creating an unusual landscape where love is assessed mechanically.

Whether it's swiping on apps or the symbolism of wearing a wedding ring, Nikou says that our fingers have long been tied to romance.

The film follows Anna (Jessie Buckley), an unemployed teacher who takes a job as an instructor at the Love Institute, a recently founded center that trains people for the test through rigorous methods like shock therapy and underwater exercises. An idealist, Anna enthusiastically partners with the Institute’s top instructor, the stoic and sad-eyed Amir (Riz Ahmed). It’s not long before Anna and Amir’s close proximity leads them to fall for each other. The problem? Anna already took the test years ago with her boyfriend Ryan (Jeremy Allen White) — and they’re a perfect match. So why can’t Anna stay away from Amir?

Nikou's narrative hints at a world where society's focus on coupledom is rigidly structured. While not as grim as some dystopian visions, the film still subtly emphasizes the societal expectations and pressures on couples. It portrays a love story where human chemistry becomes a disruptive force that transcends the rigidity of the system. Buckley and Ahmed's performances beautifully convey the unspoken nuances of their growing attraction, while Marcell Rév's cinematography captures these intimate moments. The film ultimately advocates for a gentle rebellion against a system that may limit the depth of human connection.

Buckley, Ahmed and White are joined in the cast by Luke Wilson and Annie Murphy.

Greek filmmaker Nikou, known for directing “Apples” (2020), makes his English language debut with “Fingernails.” In conversation with Entertainment Weekly, Nikou revealed that the concept for the film comes from his pondering of an age-old question.

"The whole idea came when I, personally, was trying to think: What is love?" Nikou told EW. "Then, of course, I was seeing people around me that were looking for love in a different way than I was thinking, whether it be by using dating apps, by using social media, or other things. But they were using their fingers to just swipe right and left in order to find love."

Nikou went on to explain that when he was brainstorming ideas for his fictional love test, he considered several scenarios but ultimately found himself drawn to fingers. Whether it's swiping on apps or the symbolism of wearing a wedding ring, Nikou says that our fingers have long been tied to romance. He draws it back to science by connecting fingernail health to heart health — in rare cases, white spots on nails can be a sign of heart disease. "The nails are also something that protect our flesh," Nikou said. "So, when you're losing them, you feel the pain, which is equal to the pain of love. But you're losing something that protects you, and you feel a little bit more vulnerable, like how you are when you are in love."

While critics have been divided in their reception to “Fingernails,” many agree that the chemistry between Ahmed and Buckley is a point of triumph. In The Guardian’s review of the film, they said that, “The natural chemistry between two stars of Buckley and Ahmed’s caliber would be tough to tamp down.” Roger Ebert agreed, stating in their review that, “Thankfully, this deliberately paced film has Ahmed and Buckley. They’re both pulling the best out of one another … In ‘Fingernails,’ you’re counting every long second these two sensual people aren’t together.” 

“Fingernails” premiered at the 50th Telluride Film Festival on Aug. 31, 2023. It will enjoy a limited release in theaters starting Oct. 27, 2023, before streaming on Apple TV+ starting Nov. 3, 2023.

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