Directed: Ng Choon Ping, Sam H. Freeman
Cast: Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, George MacKay, Antonia Clarke
Released: 1st December 2023
‘It was like she was the real me, I was the performance’, an emotionally naked Nathan Stewart-Jarrett tilting his head to the ceiling, slumped in a shallow bathtub, questioning their sense of true self. As queer people, we are no strangers to a challenging myriad of situations. Specific environments and certain social circles are an ill fit, prompting us to edit and tone down ourselves to avoid deep interrogation or potential harm.
Problematic individuals exert their power to undermine you, nudging you into this grey space where your clarity of thought abandons you as they strip away at your self-worth. Yet we all know underneath that anger masks a fragility where it’s themselves who are uncertain. Can that power truly be redistributed to us? Can we ever be remotely sympathetic to the concealed complexities of how these people present themselves? And is there a real catharsis in getting even for the trauma they inflict?
They are fleshing out their impactful short of the same name, which earned them a BIFA (British Independent Film Award). Femme‘s big-screen conversion, handled by its directorial duo Sam H Freeman and Ng Choon Ping, further elevates its compelling themes.
In the opening frames, we witness Jules (Stewart-Jarrett) at the peak of their powers, surrounded by love from their chosen queer family. As drag queen Aphrodite, there is a majesty about how they enter a room. You can feel the atmosphere change; unfortunately, that can also be applied when they’re not lighting up a stage. What should be a straightforward trip to a convenience store for a quick ciggie is not without risk—soon encountering the taut, tattooed frame of Preston (George Mackay) and his bold friends dishing out the banter, only for Jules to equalise with some sweet shade of their own.
Through that act of bravery, Jules is the subject of a terrifying homophobic attack partly filmed for their twisted amusement months down the line. The aftershock is apparent with Jules largely housebound, with dear friend Toby (John McCrea) adamant they’re letting their attackers win by retreating. A sudden rush of confidence leads Jules to a gay sauna, a lengthy shower momentarily washing away the built-up grime of such hatred directed at them. Only to be left stunned by the presence of Preston in that very setting. They are sparking a dangerous dynamic between the pair that thoroughly examines their respective masculinity and identity.
It is a retweaking of a revenge thriller for an equally unapologetic audience. The concepts of ‘closeted straight guy fantasy’ and entertaining a sexual partner that is inescapably toxic and abusive in a bid to feel a false sense of acceptance aren’t lost on many queer people beyond our comprehension. It somehow possesses a seductive quality, leaving you curious about your justification and understanding the person at the root. But within that lies a conflicted sense of performance for everyone involved, making Femme such an absorbing albeit triggering experience.
A baggy yellow hoodie reimagined by Jules in a crop top fit for a drag performance whilst utilising it for a skimpy photoshoot to seduce Preston as they bask in their femininity, a “street fighter” in their own right. Jules hits all the right buttons in selecting the petite toughness of Chun-Li against the bulging muscles of Zangief as they’re drawn into a heated impromptu game night with Preston’s friends. Even in the sexual positions Jules and Preston opt for, which brings a whole new meaning to “power bottom”—then flipping to a more intimate exchange where their eyes finally lock, suggesting that Preston’s internalised homophobia might finally be softening. Through its director, Freeman & Choon Ping, Femme‘s visual language is daringly precise, sustaining the film’s intensity throughout its messy scenarios.
Its sensational performances only heighten that intensity. Seemingly unable to articulate the inner struggle, using his ferocity and brutishness as a defence mechanism. George Mackay’s savvy portrayal of Preston solidifies his chameleonic nature, leaving room to suggest that this character is perhaps a victim of the environment around him without completely letting him off the hook for his wretched past behaviour.
They initially shudder at every raised voice. But Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s rendering of Jules is ultimately built on quiet strength. Their resourcefulness in drag serves them exceptionally well in escaping morally murky situations, breaking down the binary of both male and female and right and wrong in dealing with a closeted, often aggressive individual like Preston. There are no easy answers, but as an apparent victim, they recognise that figuring out that emotional baggage is not their fight. Standing tall away from it evokes a sense of liberation and self-worth being restored.
A nail-biting, completely fearless piece of British queer cinema that shakes you to your core. Like a lyric from Jules’ opening lip-sync, Femme deserves all eyes on it.
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