Berlinale 2023: Fest Highlight 'Femme' is Vividly Tense & Provocative
by Alex Billington
February 28, 2023
Ending on a high note!! What a discovery – I hope this goes on to create conversations around the globe. My final screening of the 2023 Berlin Film Festival was this terrific film - Femme, co-written and co-directed by filmmakers Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping. It's one of the best films of the festival this year. It's also one of the only films (out of those the 22 I saw during the fest) that rightfully deserves to be called "innovative" – not necessarily for the filmmaking, mainly for the storytelling. Femme is an extraordinarily brave, compassionate, open-minded film crafted around a contemporary, thought-provoking narrative that had me on the edge of my seat. It rides an especially fine line between being extremely uncomfortable and tense, and also enticing and exciting in its tale of revenge and subversion. It not only kept me entertained, with the audience enjoying a few good laughs, but I'm still grappling with its plot and how ingeniously it's designed to make viewers ask – what is right, what is wrong, what is the right way to handle this dilemma?
Describing the setup for Femme isn't really a spoiler, but if anyone would rather watch this without knowing anything going into this film – save this review and read it later once you have seen it for yourself. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett stars as Jules, who spends his nights performing in London as the beloved drag queen named "Aphrodite Banks". One night during a show he goes out to a nearby shop and encounters a group of thugs. They follow him and beat him up, leaving him deeply traumatized and emotionally scarred. Months later after recovering, Jules is out at a gay sauna and notices the same guy who attacked him is in there, but doesn't recognize him without any of his make-up. He tries to strike up a friendship with this guy, named Preston, played by George MacKay, who happens to be a closeted gay man pretending to be extra straight in front of all of his mates. As Jules grows closer to Preston, he wonders whether he can get revenge on him, and how this might be possible – what is necessary to get back at this dangerous, toxic, violent man. This is all just setup, with the relationship between Jules & Preston becoming the real core of this provocative film.
Femme is outstanding - a film with real style, with something bold to say; filmmaking to start conversations, that's extra edgy and also compassionate. The cinematography by DP James Rhodes is alluring and vivid, giving the film a distinct aesthetic that borrows from its drag club opening as it continues into the darkness of London and the outskirts. He gives driving around London in fancy cars a night club vibe. There's also an excellent contemporary score from Adam Janota Bzowski that enhances the tension, focusing more on the unsettling atmosphere of the film than the entertainment value of watching this story play out. I'm also glad there's some levity that breaks the tension a few times, while reminding us these characters are human beings and not just archetypes. I find the claim that this film uses tropes to craft these characters absurd, especially when so many people like this exist in real life anyway. Sorry, it's true. Not to mention, the way this film addresses toxic masculinity, homophobia, violence, and revenge is so fresh – it cannot be criticized just because we've seen people like this before. Maybe some folks are too afraid of seeing themselves in it?
Both of the performances are phenomenal! Is there anything George MacKay can't pull off?! Always riveting in every role. He's one of my favorite actors, I feel like he can take on something seriously challenging and always go even further every time, giving the character even more depth than what's written in the script. He's matched by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Jules in an extraordinarily intricate, nuanced, more tender but still powerful role directly across from him. Bravo!! These two are just: damn. The film is innovative in the way it handles this exceedingly complex, prickly story. What I admire the most is it ever so carefully gives the audience so much to think about and consider and mull over. We don't want to be asked these questions, we don't want to have to think about the situation and what truly is right or wrong, despite our preconceived notions (whichever way they lean). It makes us confront these thoughts and challenge our own feelings with a delicate understanding of the complexity, while providing an edgy, compelling cinematic story to follow. This is what modern filmmaking is all about, and these are the kind of provocative stories that must be told.
Alex's Berlinale 2023 Rating: 9 out of 10
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