Sarajevo 2023 review: Femme (Sam H. Freeman & Ng Choon Ping)

“An instant entry into the canon of truly remarkable and inventive queer films, Femme is a unique story of revenge as seen through a fascinating lens.”

What happens when the victim becomes the perpetrator, especially if it is done as a way of getting revenge on those who perhaps deserved to be at the receiving end of some retribution? This is the first major question asked by Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping in Femme, the feature-length directorial debut they developed after their well-received short film of the same name. Both films tell the story of a drag artist that has their entire livelihood (and existence) called into question after a homophobic attack. When they unexpectedly encounter the perpetrator in a bathhouse, the idea of revenge begins to take shape, leading to a vicious game of cat-and-mouse in which both characters attempt to assert their dominance. An instant entry into the canon of truly remarkable and inventive queer films, Femme is a unique story of revenge as seen through a fascinating lens, told by a pair of directors who take an ambitious concept and strip it of all potential cliches, instead infusing it with a genuine sense of danger and complexity. These form the foundation for a remarkable work that challenges and provokes in equal measure, proving to be one of the year’s more captivating surprises and a film that understands the importance of establishing a solid basis from which its unusual ideas can eventually develop. This has always been the cornerstone of queer cinema, which has earned yet another tremendous addition to its steadily growing list of exceptional and unconventional works that offer a new form of storytelling from within the LGBTQIA+ community, one that is more edgy and subversive than ever before.

The first step in discovering a new classic of queer cinema is to determine how effectively it explores its story – and Femme is one of the more intriguing films of the past year, primarily because it is unlike anything we have seen before, managing to be quite inventive in how it is structured and how it employs a range of genres. Made with the harsh grit of early Neil Jordan, but filtered through a decidedly queer lens that lends it a certain stylishness, the film grows into a fascinating neo-noir thriller. One that is simultaneously chic but bleak, the kind of contradiction that is well-served by such a film. Freeman and Ng balance the dual concepts and bring them together with a stark sense of self-awareness, which elevates and reworks the film to become something quite impressive while never coming across as if they are simply trying to show their directorial prowess, as so often happens with films that add a queer perspective onto cherished, established genres. The film is driven primarily by the atmosphere, and it would be a challenge to find a more tense and provocative recent work, specifically one that centres on the concept of desire. The mood drives the story and creates an unforgettable experience that is as unsettling as it is utterly transfixing. We find that some of the most impactful moments are those that are quieter, utilizing movement and expression more than spoken words, coupled with a genuinely enthralling story of revenge anchoring Femme and preventing it from steering too far off course from its intended destination, both stylistically and in terms of genre.

At the heart of Femme we find two absolutely incredible performances, with Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and George MacKay taking on the central roles (both exceptional actors who represent a very promising future for the film industry, based on this film and previous work). Stewart-Jarrett is Jules, a performer who finds himself falling victim to the violence of Preston, played by MacKay, who uses his well-curated persona as a thug to hide his own sexual insecurity and inability to accept his identity. This film is extremely taut and tense, and required actors who could match the directors in terms of their vision for the story, and while they are replacing Paapa Essiedu and Harris Dickinson (who originated the roles in the short film), they still deliver committed performances that match them on a profoundly human level. They portray these characters with an astonishing amount of intensity, finding small details in the quiet moments to develop beyond mere archetypes, which strengthen not only their individual performances but also the way they play off one another. This film would not have worked without actors who had strong chemistry – not necessarily sexual or romantic (although this is a large part of the narrative), but simply the ability to work with one another and develop their roles alongside their fellow actors. It creates a unique and fascinating dynamic that is captivating and sometimes quite unnerving. It is becoming increasingly rare to find performances that are this dedicated to such a challenging premise, but both leads of Femme commit wholeheartedly to the premise, and deliver astonishing, meaningful performances that set the foundation for this film and its many challenging discussions on desire and sexuality.

In these performances, we find that there is much more to Femme than initially meets the eye – once we have spent some time with the characters we begin to understand that this is a film with many different narrative threads, which the directors work to weave together into something cohesive. At first glance it is clear that this is a film about a disparity within the gay community, namely between those that live their lives proudly expressing who they are, and others who conceal it under layers of self-loathing and insecurity. This can sometimes result in acts of anger and unhinged violence, which is the social message that propelled this film. However, the deeper we venture into this story, the more we start to notice the abstract details, particularly around the theme of identity. Femme is a film primarily focused on the concept of masculinity in its various forms. Gender is performance, and both protagonists construct their lives around a precise kind of persona – for Jules, this manifests in his work as a drag artist. Here he can escape into the body of Aphrodite Banks, temporarily suspending his male persona, but to which he will always return. Conversely, Preston is also performing, but in a very different way, one that is formed from desperation to hide his identity more than to express it in different ways. The film’s examination of the lives of these two men is remarkable, and the almost playful approach to exploring their growing relationship, in particular the shift in the power dynamic between the two men, makes for an engaging portrait of contemporary perceptions of masculinity, told from two distinct and fascinating perspectives.

Femme makes it clear that films about queer desire and relationships do not always need to be romantic, and that they can be the subject of experimentation in a range of different genres – in fact, the process of applying new ideas to such a story actually allows for a more revealing set of insights. Queer cinema has always been about subversion and harnessing the element of surprise, and few films from within the present wave of LGBTQIA+ cinema have managed to master both with as radical and unique a vision as this one. Femme is an intriguing blend of a neo-noir crime drama and psychological thriller, which are layered with conversations around queer theory, specifically in exploring the deeper themes that form the foundation for this film. It is a harsh and often quite brutal film that refuses to pacify itself or the message of the story, since even at its most abstract it is still focusing on vital themes, touching on some harrowing content that is unfortunately a reality for far too many people. As a result, it will likely strike a chord with many viewers, especially those who have experienced violence and bigotry based on their identity. Extremely bleak and deeply against the idea of a happy ending, Femme is a challenging but vital film that shows a darker side of humanity, one that tends to use violence as a way to conceal its own insecurities. Something that Freeman and Ng explore in vivid detail throughout this unnerving, genre-bending psychological drama that represents a very bright future for artists looking to combine queer themes with genres that have yet to be explored through such a lens.