Have you ever actually stopped to wonder why the rom-com genre exists?
When it comes to the arbitrary labels we chuck on films to make them easier to find in HMV, cinema’s most popular hybrid is pretty unique. Every other category – horror, sci-fi, western, and so on – tends to stand on its own. But come Valentine’s Day, few couples are likely to snuggle down to a straight-up romance movie. For one thing, hardly anyone seems to be making them anymore.
No, when most people feel the need to watch two people falling in love these days, they stick on a rom-com. That does seem a bit odd – anyone who’s been through a break-up will tell you they rarely feel like a great mine for comedy at the time.
The reason, maybe, this duality has proved so popular for the last few decades is that it’s tapped into something an increasingly scientific, technology-driven world can’t really explain. Romance is, fundamentally, very silly. Romantic films, especially so.
When was the last time you met a life partner picking up scattered papers on an office floor? Both reached for the same book at the same time? In fact, how often do people meet hand-first in any capacity (don’t answer that).
Even still, the lack of genuinely brilliant new rom-coms is a common complaint amongst cinephiles and general audiences at large. Instead, we seem content to stick on the same comforting classics year after year, and they usually involve Hugh Grant. As Fingernails notes on a particularly self-referential cinema marquee, “no-one understands love more”.
Fingernails absolutely deserves to join the When Harry Met Sallys and Notting Hills of the hard-rotate Valentine’s Day canon, but there’s a real risk, especially considering its straight-to-Apple-TV status, that it will pass a lot of people by. On the surface, a romantic comedy that revolves around people having their fingernails pulled out feels like a hard sell.
Let me assuage your fears a bit, then. There’s really not that much fingernails stuff in Fingernails. What is there will make you go “ooh” in an appropriately empathetic way. It won’t make you vomit, and it won’t last long, but it absolutely has to be there, and it really works (especially in a packed auditorium, making Fingernails the latest in a long line of straight-to-streaming films that would have benefitted enormously for some time on the big screen). Director Christos Nikou understands that for the ‘rom’ half the equation to work, sometimes the ‘com’ has to get a little bit nasty.
That ‘nastiness’ starts from the film’s premise. In an unspecified, potentially non-existent time somewhere between the invention of the record player and the smartphone age, a company has developed a technique to numerically quantify love. To test a couple’s compatibility, each pulls out a fingernail and sticks it in what amounts to a lo-fi microwave. The microwave spits out a percentage – 100, 50 or zero. Both in love; one in love; neither in love.
To raise the chances of compatibility, the same company has set up a course. Participants are exposed to a series of the romance genre’s greatest hits: faking a fire in a cinema, for example, or doing karaoke in broken French. One by one, our young couples are subjected to a checklist of romantic cliches.
At first glance, the film’s attitude to the sub-genre can feel almost cynical. As Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed design absurd relationship tests to put would-be life partners through their paces, the temptation to scoff at these surface-level demonstrations of love is pretty intense.
Then the two leads meet each other’s gaze through the chlorinated blue of a swimming pool, and all that cynicism melts away. At its heart, Fingernails is a film fascinated by the idea of love. Yes, a couple bonding, palm to palm, over either side of a stuck car window is fundamentally silly. But it also can’t help but set the heart a-fluttering, and Nikou, along with his characters, wants to find out why.
Ahmed and Buckley have chemistry – the kind of unspoken, mutual joy that could sell a relationship even without Nikou’s razor-sharp writing. For most of its runtime, Fingernails shows remarkable restraint as each star’s gaze lingers long, and longingly, on the person destined to sit on the other half of the film’s poster.
Buckley in particular demonstrates the kind of easy charm that made her turns in I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, Wild Rose and HBO’s Chernobyl so memorable. Anna’s fondness for big woollen jumpers and an endearing need to do things turns her into a protagonist it’s impossible not to fall in love with. As a foil, Riz Ahmed’s pitch-perfectly dry sense of humour pairs with her in a wonderfully plausible odd couple style.
But in a significant way this is Buckley’s film more than a traditional rom-com two-hander. With Jeremy Allen White’s delightfully boring Ryan thrown into the mix, the film becomes as much about the dying days of one relationship as the start of another. The romantic cliches that spark so much spontaneous joy between Anna and Amir only seem to prove the test which put White and Buckley together ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
It’s these same cliches that make Fingernails such a unique joy to watch – Christopher Stracey’s beautifully melancholic piano score and the repeated refrain of Yazoo’s Only You (re-occurring in three different cover versions) fully embrace the indulgently weepy tone the genre can be known for. Remarkably holding onto its cake and shovelling it down, often at the same time, there are plenty of reasons Fingernails’ tonal whiplash shouldn’t work. The greatest compliment I can give it is that, like the chemistry between its two leads, it just does. Not many films understand love better.
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