"The tension is masterfully handled in a revenge thriller narrative which also poses difficult ethical questions." | Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

Early in 2022, directors Sam H Freeman and Ng Choon Ping made a short film called Femme which got international attention. What they wanted, they told me at the time, was to illustrate that femininity does not equate to weakness, and to tackle the frequently internalised homophobia which makes gay men feel that they need to ‘act straight’ in order to deserve respect. The feature length version of that film has now been completed and it screened as part of the 2023 Fantasia International Film Festival.

The opportunity to work on a wider canvas has seen their story change in form and acquire a lot of additional depth, but it still hinges on the relationship between a feminine black gay man (here the excellent Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and an aggressive, closeted white drug dealer (George MacKay). The tension is masterfully handled in a revenge thriller narrative which also poses difficult ethical questions, but it’s complicated further by the emergence of genuine feelings which neither party knows how to handle.

Jules (Stewart-Jarrett) lives a double life, of sorts. By day he is a conventionally attired man, still discernibly gay to those with a knack for noticing, but discreet enough to avoid trouble. By night he performs as a drag queen, confident, glamorous, and ready to take on the world - though he sometimes bites off more than he can chew. It's as the latter that he attracts the attention of the dealer, Preston, whose attraction to him he can clearly see, and whom he teases about it. Unfortunately, he later happens upon Preston when alone, and a savage beating follows. Jules is left badly traumatised, but everything changes when he bumps into Preston again in a sauna, this time in his more masculine guise. Realising that he hasn't been recognised, he leads the dealer into an affair which might provide him with the revenge he desires, but at a higher cost than he can imagine.

Both characters evince a complex mixture of learned toughness and desperate tenderness in a story which is constantly flirting with danger. Both take risks to find pleasure, and find pleasure in the risks themselves, but Preston too is living in two worlds, passing himself off elsewhere as straight, which makes him vulnerable in ways he doesn't really know how to handle. Getting close to him makes it impossible for Jules not to see his humanity. Both make dubious ethical choices, and yet both feel like victims of something bigger, something with which they are not equipped to deal, and which goes beyond sexuality itself, determining what they feel they have to do in order to survive.

Freeman and Ng understand this world well and fill it with small details which, to many Londoners, will make it feel like home - even as they create a distinctly noirish look. Jules might be understood as a modern femme fatale, ambiguous and often sympathetic, like the best of such characters, but the complicated Preston is far from the conventional fall guy, and MacKay does good work in making viewers feel for him, as both men seem to be heading towards inescapable disaster - even, and perhaps especially, if they fall in love.

Intelligent, sophisticated and sometimes heartbreaking, Femme is well worth looking out for.

Reviewed on: 09 Aug 2023
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Jules is a drag artist in London. After a performance, he is brutally attacked and, traumatised, withdraws into himself. Months later, he recognises his assailant in a gay sauna and begins an affair with him, incognito. A revenge thriller.
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Director: Sam H Freeman, Ng Choon Ping

Writer: Sam H Freeman, Ng Choon Ping

Starring: George MacKay, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett

Year: 2023

Runtime: 99 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

Streaming on: Netflix

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