Sunday 10 December 2023

Versatility: "Femme"

Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping's thriller
Femme follows on from the summer's Pretty Red Dress as an interrogation of masculinity the British film industry probably couldn't have brought itself to make fifteen years ago. It began life as a pandemic short (baby steps) starring Paapa Essiedu and Harris Dickinson, which was nominated for a BAFTA in 2022, and the feature-length version - turned round sharpish with an almost entirely new cast and leads - has at its heart the kind of reversal the makers of shorts traditionally gravitate towards: one night, drag artist Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) walks into a gay sauna and finds sitting there Preston (George MacKay), the heavily tattooed, notionally straight street tough who'd carried out a brutal homophobic attack on him three months earlier. It feels like the queering of a man-walks-into-a-bar joke; just as Jules performs in make-up and wig as a woman, so too Preston is revealed as someone who's been dragging up as a knife-wielding hetero. What's been expanded from the short is the relationship that develops between the two men, and it's genuinely complicated. On the plus side, Preston's late-night text demands for a hole to fill help get Jules, a shut-in ever since the attack, out of the house. Then again, we're never quite sure what compels Jules to text back: does he have vengeance on his mind, or the fantasy of turning a straight boy, or is it a little from columns a) and b), some volatile compound of attraction and repulsion? Brute-force rutting in cars and laybys - cold, uncomfortable, makeshift (both parties have reputations to preserve; it's a film about the dangers that follow from having flatmates) - forcefully underlines how badly mixed-up things are. A happy ending, with the pair skipping hand-in-hand into some sunset, appears unlikely at best.

And yet we are persuaded something urgent is at stake, chiefly by two of the best British performances of the year, the actors passed like Geiger counters over the ironies and ambiguities in this script. There's an intriguing disconnect between the scheming, obsessive Jules as a character and Stewart-Jarrett's onscreen demeanour, which has almost always been that of a total sweetheart, exceptionally nice to his mum: look into his eyes here, and more often than not you spy longing rather than bloodlust. Yet it works for the drama: this boy is in this pursuit for a relationship we know he can't easily have, and if we wince, flinch or cower (and we do), it's out of the realisation the vulnerable Jules can surely only get hurt again. Preston allows MacKay, previously Britfilm's most upstanding new talent, to hint at reserves of versatility and suggest an animalistic quality unseen in his earlier, dreamier roles. (An associate describes Preston as "like a pitbull who's been dropped on his head too many times".) The biggest complications arrive in the midsection, which shows Jules schooling Preston in how to be gentler - either offering him a personality makeover, or softening him up for the kill - and the boyish MacKay re-emerges just ahead of the final act. In short, the feature hasn't lost anything for its (presumably schedule-enforced) change of casting; you feel Freeman and Ping knew exactly what they wanted in expanding the short to full-length, and plugged the new actors in accordingly. Some rougher edges remain apparent. It's one of those indies where the dialogue sometimes takes third place in the sound mix behind score and ambience (which poses the odd challenge in a film that starts and ends in a club), and the directors can't quite pull off a finale that involves the quietest ever drag bar backstage area. But Femme is a debut that aces the bulk of its big scenes, mainly intimacies where the characters are close enough either to arouse or strike at the throat. In doing so, it makes its own argument for why - contra the new puritans of social media - the cinema still needs its sex scenes. Sometimes these, too, tell a story - in this case a charged and arresting one.

Femme is now playing in selected cinemas.

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