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Review: True love can be confirmed in the offbeat sci-fi romance ‘Fingernails,’ but at what cost?

A woman smiles while a somber man looks on.
Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed in the movie “Fingernails.”
(Apple TV+)
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Anna (Jessie Buckley), a young woman at a marital crux, has just accidentally learned revealing information about her co-worker Amir (Riz Ahmed) when, from afar, she sees him dancing alone with enviable abandon, even if he’s surrounded by a mundane office party. For an instant, a meek smile crosses Anna’s face before a worried visage replaces it.

It’s not a reach to infer that Greek director Christos Nikou holds the act of dancing — particularly when unconcerned about public judgment — as an expression of self-determination. His 2020 debut, “Apples,” set in a world where a disease has erased some people’s memories, showed its protagonist losing himself to the music on a crowded dance floor. In both cases, Nikou holds the shots of the entranced men long enough to cause discomfort, or perhaps inspire jealousy on our part.

Both “Apples” and Nikou’s latest, the English-language “Fingernails” (the two movies were executive-produced by actor Cate Blanchett), insert an unassuming sci-fi concept into humanist narratives that interrogate our preoccupation with romantic companionship. In “Fingernails,” a melancholic and delicately absurdist drama, couples can now obtain certainty about their true feelings for each other, thanks to a revolutionary medical procedure.

The test consists of plucking one fingernail from each partner, without any form of anesthesia, to test them together in a microwave-like piece of retro-looking technology. (Although gruesome imagery never appears onscreen, our imagination fills in the blanks to make us squirm.) The results indicate one of three things: whether both parties are in love; whether neither one is; or, the worst outcome, only one of them loves truthfully but the machine won’t say which.

Luckily, Anna and her husband, Ryan (a no-nonsense Jeremy Allen White), received a mutually positive verdict from the painful exam. But there’s no guarantee that such answer will be permanent. With restraint, Nikou (co-writing with Stavros Raptis and Sam Steiner) pokes at the unspoken necessity for certainty, a yearning that conflicts with our inherent emotional volatility.

A bearded man speaks in an office.
Luke Wilson in the movie “Fingernails.”
(Apple TV+)
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Intrigued by the implications of this miracle advancement in favor of relationships, Anna pursues and lands a job at the Love Institute, run by Duncan (an effectively deadpan Luke Wilson), where couples pay for a program that will strengthen their bond before taking the test, which the company does in-house. Divorce is down because people no longer wed the wrong partner. She teams up with Amir, a seasoned professional in this field of finding irrefutably compatible pairs, and they develop activities, such as singing songs in French or staring at each other underwater, to reaffirm the participants’ trust in each other.

They can’t admit it, but a mutual interest beyond platonic friendship starts growing between Anna and Amir. Unprompted and at first unwelcomed, this feeling troubles Anna, because even another go at the examination can’t solve her doubts with assurance.

The unspecified time period Nikou and Hungarian cinematographer Marcell Rév (“Malcolm & Marie”) immerse us in, a pre-cellphone era, is painted in muted hues for its clothing and sets. The demure tones match the finely tuned acting: Buckley’s performance, torn between the security of what science has told her and what her gut is asking her to explore, imbues the film with a quiet sense of tension. Yet, it’s the boyish nervousness of Ahmed’s Amir that reminds us of the spontaneous spark that can ignite between two people, whether or not they are ready for it.

For some, Nikou’s deliberate intent to portray a subtly warped reality may read as forced. But there’s an endearing bizarreness to “Fingernails,” his first film in English, that allows him to grasp at some of the intricacies of the human condition, steeped in silences as much as heartfelt analysis.

Comparing Nikou to his countrymate Yorgos Lanthimos is somewhat facile: While the similarities, starting with the peculiarity of their premises, are there for the taking (Nikou actually worked as a second assistant director on Lanthimos’ breakout, “Dogtooth”), Nikou’s own efforts indicate a worldview that’s gentler. It’s expressed in his new film’s climax, a crisis of uncontainable fondness.

'Fingernails'

Rating: R, for language

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Playing: Vidiots, Eagle Rock; Laemmle NoHo 7

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