Sleeping with the Enemy in FEMME

A breakout debut feature that delivers a complex and visceral psychodrama

FEMME is one of those films that shakes you up to the presence of real talent. Not just in front of the camera, but behind it too. After debuting their short film Femme at SXSW back in 2021, writer/director team Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping scaled up the look, feel, and impact of that outstanding work into a complex and visceral debut feature.

The film opens with a bang, as we witness Jules, (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Candyman) bursting onto the stage as their drag persona Aphrodite Banks. Colorful, confident, reveling in the limelight, and the audience that adores her, and friend that congregate around her afterward. Afterwards changing into less ostentatious, but still femme attire, Jules sneaks a quick cigarette outside and notices a sullen man across the street clearly checking him out. When acknowledged, this man Preston (George MacKay, 1917) swiftly moves on. After the partying dies down, Jules heads home, stopping off at a corner shop and while waiting to checkout, in walks Preston with a pack of belligerent friends in tow. Loutish behavior provokes a retort from Jules, making a mockery of Preston and once outside, a viscous assault begins. Time passes, wounds heal, but the psychological trauma persists. Withdrawn from friend and his former life, Jules finally ventures out to a gay sauna where he has a chance encounter with the Preston, who clearly has no idea they have met previously. A connection is made, numbers are exchanged, and an opportunity for revenge arises. But how close does Jules need to get to this closeted and violent man to expose him.

So FEMME plays around with the old scenario of sleeping with the enemy. The risky strategy of getting closer to danger to achieve your aim. In this case, revenge porn, to reveal self-loathing Preston engaged in homosexual acts Of course the additional complication is the emergence of a relationship between the pair as immersion in a lie can flip thoughts or perspective, or feelings, of both parties. This could all be handled in a blunt force way, but instead, FEMME is as nuanced, and tender as it’s title implies. These two men differ not just in their approach to their sexuality, but in their upbringing, politics, race, and social class. Adding further complexity to their interplay, and the shifting power dynamic between them. MacKay, who always seems more fitting in these darker, twisted roles, plays Preston like a physically coiled and angry snake, just waiting to strike. A veneer of self-loathing cracks as things progress to reveal something buried within, brought out by this relationship with Jules. Stewart-Jarrett builds an entire spectrum into his character, one that runs the gamut of emotions from vulnerability and sensitivity, to anguish and anger, and above all, empathy.

FEMME is a remarkably composed effort from first-time feature directors Sam H Freeman and Ng Choon Ping. An enthralling investment in Jules’s plight and journey, that comes with a visceral emotional punch. It’s this human component that is remarkably developed to hook the viewer, and add surprising elements to a story that in lesser hands might unfold as a more conventional revenge thriller. Cinematographer James Rhodes showcases the texture and grit of London’s underbelly, and potently leverages light and dark for thematic and character effect. Similarly important is the considered crafting of Buki Ebiesuwa’s costume design. The different iterations of outfits that Jules/Aphrodite don through the film reflect mood and confidence, and whether stripped away or ostentatious, speak volumes. Where FEMME really flexes is in highlighting the the impact of transgressive behavior and hate, and countering it with the beauty and belonging of drag and the LGBTQI+ community, where identity and acceptance is paramount. An enthralling, complex and visceral psychodrama, there is no neat ending here, no clean lessons. Its murkier and more morally gray than that, which is often the reality of things.

FEMME hits theaters nationwide on April 5th

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