Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed in Fingernails
"There’s something inherently endearing about the way that Nikou always managed to conjure timelessness in his worlds. They’re more analogue than futuristic but ultimately hang in a sort of limbo of ‘here but not quite now’." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

Love hurts in the latest film from Christos Nikou, at least it does if you want to empirically prove it. That's the choice couples face in a world very much like our own but where an institute can, for the price of a pulled out fingernail each, establish whether you and your partner are a perfect match.

Anna (Jessie Buckley) should be living happily ever after as a result. She and Ryan (Jeremy Allen Green) did the deed a while back, sacrificing a fingernail apiece for a machine-generated assessment of their love for one another and coming up 100%. Now Anna isn’t quite so sure their relationship isn’t stuck in a rut and, partially out of curiosity and partly from a desire to reinforce her confidence in the procedures, she takes a job at the institute counselling couples in a bid to strengthen their love bond ahead of the test.

Things only become more complex, however, after the director (Luke Wilson, nicely understated) assigns Anna to be mentored by existing staff member Amir (Riz Ahmed) and their friendship threatens to grow into something else, especially since Amir’s happily ever after may have more of a fairy tale element than first meets eye. Less melancholic than his debut Apples, it still shares that film’s heightened sense of the absurd. The exercises the couples are put through include singing karaoke in French - because that’s the universal language of love - and leaping in pairs out of a plane. Music, in general, has a vital presence in the film, with Yazoo’s Only You also putting in a strong supporting performance.

The writer/director also has a lot of fun with the ridiculousness of the technology involved. In Apples, an instamatic camera became a touchstone for much of the drama and here, the machine the nails are put into for testing is so bizarrely retro it wouldn’t look out of place in a kids’ show. This only heightens the sense of the human race’s willingness to trust in ‘technology’ no matter how ridiculous it may appear.

There’s also something inherently endearing about the way that Nikou always managed to conjure timelessness in his worlds. They’re more analogue than futuristic but ultimately hang in a sort of limbo of ‘here but not quite now’. After all, is this machine and these bonding sessions so very far away from the world we inhabit where couple’s counselling is commonplace and there are plenty of apps that pledge to offer up the ‘perfect match’? Is the peer pressure to ‘take the test’ much removed from society’s general continued desire to see people get hitched? The ‘science’ of the film is suitably, and humorously, ambiguous, given that three results are possible - 100%, 0% or 50%, with the kicker being that if you get the latter result, it doesn’t tell you who is in love and who isn’t. The question is whether Anna is going to accept this in blind faith or listen to her heart.

The sense of the machine world going up against something altogether more tactile is an ever-present. Costume designer Bina Daigeler continually kits Anna out in “fuzzy”, textured clothing, that almost dares you to reach out and touch her - a sensation that is further reinforced after she gets a smut of mud on her face. A shower scene between Anna and Ryan also heightens that sense of the physical being more important than the notional.

As for the test itself, it’s every bit as toe-curling as you might imagine, even though it’s never shown in a graphic fashion, with Nikou instead relying on the sight of pliers and someone biting down on a piece of wood to do the work for him. It also takes on a cumulative awfulness as we see the routine several times in the film, each somehow more wince-inducing than the last. Nikou’s imagingings may verge on the dystopian but there’s always a sweet centre to them. When it comes to love, he seems to be saying, listen to your feelings, don't torture yourself.

Reviewed on: 25 Sep 2023
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A woman who is increasingly unsure about her relationship secretly embarks on a new assignment working at a mysterious institute designed to incite and test the presence of romantic love in increasingly desperate couples.
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Director: Christos Nikou

Writer: Christos Nikou, Stavros Raptis, Sam Steiner

Starring: Jeremy Allen White, Annie Murphy, Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed, Luke Wilson, Katy Breier

Year: 2023

Country: US

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