BUFF24: Femme is a Gripping Revenge Thrillride

Image courtesy of The Boston Underground Film Festival / Exile PR

In 1974, a moment in Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter made our hearts stop as Charlotte Rampling saw Dirk Bogarde at the desk of the Vienna hotel she was staying in. Any audience watching, knowing what the picture was about, remembers it vividly as it sends Rampling’s character, Lucia, into a spiral of trauma. Bogarde’s character, Max, is sent into a reflective state of fear, recalling the horrifying things he put her through when he was her caretaking SS officer in a concentration camp. With a new dynamic upon meeting the Nazi officer who tormented her, Lucia rekindles the power-driven, psychosexual relationship Max and she once had, now with a sense of Stockholm syndrome attached.

The Poster for Femme is in all red and shows Preston's face glaring at Jules'/Aphrodite's face.
Image courtesy of The Boston Underground Film Festival / Exile PR

Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping offer a modern take on The Night Porter story with their new film Femme. In this stunning reimagining, Candyman’s Nathan Stewart-Jarrett stars as Jules, a confident drag performer who undergoes a demeaning victimization at the hands of Preston (The Beast’s George MacKay). Preston and his band of thugs beat Jules to a pulp, leaving him for dead naked and unconscious outside of a bodega. Jules is left a shell of his former self. Unwilling to perform and traumatized, he sits around playing video games as the days slip away. After an encounter at a bathhouse reveals his attacker’s closeted predilections, Jules hatches a plan to get revenge on Preston by outing him publicly.

Femme feels heavily inspired by The Night Porter’s setup, exchanging the Nazi presence for the parallel vitriol of bigots formed through toxic masculinity. While the film is UK-based, its application is relatable to the current charged atmosphere of homophobia we see across the globe. The politically pointed toxicity against the LGBTQ+ community that exists in the US alone makes Femme feel timely and important. In terms of originality, while it may use the chance encounter and power struggle points from Cavani’s film, a plethora of sophisticated directing maneuvers help Femme blend its own imagination into The Night Porter’s outline. The film steers itself in a uniquely contemporary way, providing satisfaction through a perfect palindrome of events and visually conveying Freeman and Ng’s genuine brilliance.

It all starts with the confidence in Jules’ stilettos. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett owns the role and masterfully injects an air of style and self-assurance in his stage persona, Aphrodite, bringing an attitude that she is almost a separate character. When that confidence is stripped from him during Preston’s attack, the audience sees the effect. Stewart-Jarrett’s recoil and disconnection make Jules look bare, empty, and devoid of any joy his life once held. While the posse of young miscreants did everything except sexually violate Jules, the effect of the attack has left the scars of a similar assault. Stewart-Jarrett stirs you in every scene, and when joined by MacKay, your focus is on nothing else.

Drag queen Aphrodite crouches on stage in Femme
Image courtesy of The Boston Underground Film Festival / Exile PR

Meeting Preston, the audience staunchly arrives at a singular opinion. He’s every bit as confident as Aphrodite/Jules in those moments of engagement in the bodega. We hate him immediately. However, throughout Femme, MacKay is able to imbue Preston with humanity, and it becomes tantalizing to consider Jules may find a way to forgive him. That sense of apprehensiveness is overwhelming, especially given where these characters start from. The revamped Hamlet of whether to be a bad b*tch or not be a bad b*tch is introspection unlike any other in this Greek tragedy with Shakespearean sentiments. As Femme leads to its finale, Jules’ understanding of Preston is almost likened to that of a vampire in that Preston is so insecure about himself that he has to physically take another’s.

The character development in Femme is some of the best I’ve seen in recent years. The writing allows Jules and Preston to feel like fully formed human beings functioning in spaces that require them to be elevated versions of themselves. While Aphrodite isn’t exactly Jules, it is a volumetric way for him to raise the level of his authentic self to eleven. While Preston presents a violent nature, running with his gang of thugs allows him to do the same with his machismo. Yet, as Preston and Jules become more romantically entangled, defenses on all sides drop until Jules can see Preston for who he is, allowing Jules to understand he holds all the cards in his façade.

Two wonderfully multifaceted performances help make Femme one of the best thrillers of 2024, but there’s so much more. The costume design is magnificent. The lighting is exceptionally well done in both the stage show sequence at the start of the film as well as the late-night outdoor scenes. The cinematography capturing those sequences is commensurate, too. The swirl of the stage show lighting in Aphrodite’s performance looks like a big-budget production number, and the gritty feel of those late-night encounters with Preston extends a level of sleaze reminiscent of the best ’90s erotic thrillers.

Two men, nose to nose, one looking slightly frightened
Image courtesy of The Boston Underground Film Festival / Exile PR

Femme is glitteringly erotic. While it is a revenge thriller, it’s also steamy, sexy, and juicy as f*ck. Like Aphrodite, it’s bold and permeating confidence. In the last decade, queer filmmaking has not only become more mainstream, but the level of veracious stories set in queer spaces has become a pleasure to watch. Femme is a highlight of this era of transgressive pioneer storytelling. It doesn’t restrain its characters the way we’ve seen Hollywood films do. It solidly and fearlessly delivers three-dimensional queer characters instead of making their lifestyle a quirk to play better for straight audiences.

Directors Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping are names I will definitely be on the lookout for in future projects. If you have the chance, see Femme any way you can. It’s volatile yet pensive, chaotic yet well-constructed. The film is so densely layered that I suspect multiple essays will be written about it in the years to come.

Femme played as a part of The Boston Underground Film Festival and is currently playing in theaters.

Written by Sean Parker

Sean lives just outside of Boston. He loves great concerts, all types of movies, video games, and all things nerd culture.

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