Thankfully, this deliberately paced film has Ahmed and Buckley. They’re both pulling the best out of one another, leading Buckley to hit a vulnerability rarely seen in her often showier persona. It further helps that no cinematographer has loved Ahmed and Buckley’s faces more than Marcell Rév. He adores Ahmed’s angular features and the interplay between Buckley’s smirk and neckline, lighting both actors in warm, luminescent hues of maroons, blues, and violets. So many filmmakers have somehow forgotten how to capture attractive people attractively, to the point that it undermines the movie’s intended romance. In “Fingernails,” you’re counting every long second these two sensual people aren’t together.
In fact, during Nikou’s film, I couldn’t help but think about Celine Song’s equally complex tale of star-crossed lovers, “Past Lives.” Both movies take great interest in the convergence between fate and love, in the balancing of a love triangle where there is no true villain. With “Past Lives,” some of my colleagues complained about how Song’s narrative sidesteps the dramatic complications that could have arisen if the two leads physically consummated their attraction. It’s a complaint I can’t fully get behind, if only because in real life, there is no story after that happens (not unless you want to go full-on melodrama, a tone that is the opposite of “Past Lives”). “Fingernails” comes to a similar crossroad with its leads, and the choice Nikou’s film makes is equally as truthful in its understanding of what a relationship is capable of withstanding.
In that sense, “Fingernails” could easily be accused of being anticlimactic. The body horror of seeing fingernails pulled isn’t as invasive as you’d expect. It’s tastefully rendered in a way that elicits turning stomachs by what’s not seen. The quiet soulfulness of Buckley, Ahmed, and White makes for a banquet of slow cinema, one that haunts more than shocks in its parsing of love, lust, and longing.
This review was filed from the 2023 Chicago International Film Festival. “Fingernails” opens in limited release and on Apple TV+ on November 3rd.