“Femme” is an Excruciating Story of Violence and Desire [BUFF Review]

Movies don’t have to make us feel good to be valid. While we all love a cozy mystery or predictable yet comforting slasher, sometimes the most powerful films are those that challenge our beliefs about the world and each other. Horror is known for blending complex themes and conflicting emotions while presenting characters who can be simultaneously villain and hero. In the new thriller Femme, writing/directing team Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping present similar challenges with the heart wrenching story of a couple flirting with disaster. It’s an excruciating portrayal of violence, bigotry, self-loathing, and love told in the guise of a complicated romance. Femme challenges us to empathize with an unapologetic villain while reminding us that life so rarely gives us simple answers. 

Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) is a popular drag queen who survives a brutal hate crime while walking home from a show. After months of self-imposed isolation, he ventures back out into the world only to run into his attacker at a gay bathhouse. Preston (George MacKay) doesn’t recognize Jules and the two begin a turbulent affair full of violence and secrecy. With his heart set on vengeance, Jules plans to film a secret sex tape, but the closeted Preston is vigilant and allows no room for exploitation. As the dates continue, Jules finds himself letting down his guard. Preston relaxes as well and a kinder persona begins to shine through. This outwardly violent man seems shocked by his own tender feelings and a genuine connection takes root. When given the opportunity to exact his well-deserved revenge, Jules must weigh the memory of his pain against a chance at long-lasting love. 

As a straight, white, American woman, I’m aware that there are levels to this film I don’t understand, but I find Jules’s attraction to his attacker to be a heartbreaking but relatable trauma response. Preston’s violence and cruelty have caused Jules to hide from the world and convinced him that simply showing his authentic face is a dangerous act. If he can persuade Preston to love him, maybe some of this fear will dissipate and he can find the strength to rejoin the world. Replacing aggression with sensual touch may unlock the healing his body longs for even if it comes from the original source of pain. Guided by intuition, Jules dives deeper into the relationship hoping to reverse the shame of that devastating night and go back to the fearless person he used to be. 

Though his wounds have healed and the scars have faded, the memory of this horrific attack remains sharp. Another way to reclaim power would be to revisit that pain on the person who caused it and Jules’s attraction is rivaled only by his desire to make Preston suffer. If he can become the aggressor, he will no longer feel like a victim. There is no right or wrong response to trauma and sometimes healing can come in unexpected forms. Unfortunately it’s also common for survivors to seek catharsis in unsafe ways, trying to recover a feeling of blissful ignorance that has been forever lost. 

Freeman and Ping create maximum tensions with this volatile relationship constantly on the verge of disaster. Not only must Jules conceal the way he and Preston first met, they both tiptoe around Preston’s homophobic friends and strive to keep their relationship in the shadows. Though united by attraction, both men are connected by fear – Jules dreads a return to the pain he’s been trying to escape and Preston panics at the thought of revealing his true self to the world. As Jules grows more confident in the burgeoning relationship, the tables begin to turn. Preston allows himself to be vulnerable and seems on the verge of a life-altering awakening. But this unsustainable relationship is destined to fail and it’s only a matter of time before the truth of their connection spills out into the open. 

Stewart-Jarrett and MacKay are both flawless as lovers uniting on the edge of a knife. However, what is likely color-blind casting adds uncomfortable wrinkles to the story. Not only do we see Jules endure a series of brutal assaults, Preston is styled as a Nazi-coded maniac. Watching a Black drag queen attacked by an overtly homophobic white bully adds a racial element to an already upsetting crime. Freeman and Ping ask us to sympathize with Preston through Jules’s eyes, rubbing our noses in this nuanced attraction. 

Further complicating the narrative, Freeman and Ping remind us that simply escaping or canceling people like Preston doesn’t make them cease to exist. They’re more interested in what happens after a devastating act of cruelty than the motivations that sparked it to begin with. Is redemption possible for Preston and is it fair that Jules should be the one to lead him into the light? How can we heal when justice is unavailable and is there any amount of punishment or revenge that can erase the hurt we’ve endured? 

Femme doesn’t give us an easy answer and it doesn’t allow for clean catharsis. We may have seen Preston’s shocking act of violence for ourselves, but we fall for him along with Jules and honestly hope things will turn out ok. But it’s in this tension that the truth lies. We can’t always choose what our hearts desire and sometimes that longing causes more pain than we can handle. Femme is a heartbreaking and tense exploration of love shattered by reality and a reminder that we’re all just trying to do our best in this cruel and callous world. 

Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.