Berlin 2023

Femme review – pleasure and pain in an unconventional revenge drama

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and George MacKay are well-matched in Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping's uneven but promising debut

How much pleasure and pain can a body endure? And should it? Such questions linger on even after Femme, the unconventional revenge drama co-directed by Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping, has ended. While Freeman comes from a background of screenwriting and his filmmaking partner from dramaturgy, they already made a short film of the same title in 2021. Femme screened at the London Film Festival and was a strong calling card, motifs of which ended up in this 2023 feature. The structure of both rests on the tensions between violence and desire, and the ambivalent snares they entrap one another with.

When we meet Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) he is performing as drag queen Aphrodite Banks (tuned to Shygirl’s “Movie Star”). The sequence itself is spectacular, but the directors don’t withhold anything, the before and after of putting on drag as important as the performance itself. In this way, we take notice of Jules’s body, a sturdy, strong, Black body, which voluntarily presents itself as vulnerable on stage with the empowerment of drag. After catching a glimpse of a pretty face tracksuit boy – who will learn is named Preston (George MacKay)— they meet again at a corner shop where peer pressure escalates. For Jules, even going to buy some smokes isn’t safe at that moment: the unprovoked, nasty scene of homophobic assault leaves him naked, bleeding, and humiliated to deal with the consequences on his own.

Frustration and second-guessing fuel Stewart-Jarrett’s Jules as he finds himself entangled with Preston in a dangerous game of hunter and prey. MacKay, on the other hand, is composed, at times overwhelming with how well he controls the situation: a heavily tattooed, fake-brand dressed, chain-wearing bloke who can hurl himself at you if you eye him wrong. It seems paradoxical – control and lashing out – but they are both tools in his arsenal. It’s plain to see that he, too, has had troubles accepting who he is, and catering to the aggressive pool of snot he calls his friends winds him up to the breaking point. But Jules takes his time in learning it. For that reason, Femme sometimes feels a bit too long, the space between narratively heavy episodes too wide.

While no one asks of a debut film to be perfect, the directors certainly show potential. First of all, the casting feels intuitively right: pairing these two actors together results in an explosive game of would-he-wouldn’t-he that leaves us questioning motives and thoughts in emotionally charged moments. Secondly, there is the use of porn – and that is revenge gay porn with the purpose of outing a closeted straight guy – as more than the detrimental tool of humiliation it can be perceived as. For a long time, Jules suspects the best way to reinstate himself after the assault would be to inflict unbearable humiliation to his abuser, but the many attempts and the multiple videos we see on screen only fuel the attraction they share. By incorporating porn in the film and normalising it in the process of revenge, the filmmakers prime Jules to choose an alternative path: his art.

And while art cannot heal all wounds, it does provide a cathartic release to the artist. But what does it do for the perpetrator, when they encounter their own doing? This question haunts the ending of Femme and the film admittedly doesn’t deal well with answering it. While most of the events rely on a rather violent resolution – a kind of representation and a trope we are now possibly allergic to – there are lots of moments where Femme allows for actual intimacy, encouraging it both aesthetically and through the narrative. In these gaps, one can find solace, but overall, the film tells the story of two failed loves and two punished bodies that shared both pleasure and pain. It sounds way more romantic than it is, but I believe that deep down, Femme is committed to romance.

Femme was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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