Certain descriptive words can help lift a film above the mass of titles fighting for attention at festivals. The simple “drama” may be the most popular tag of them all, but compare that to something like “LGBT drag queen revenge thriller” and it’s not difficult to predict which movie is going to be the hotter ticket in town. Which is perhaps why British feature Femme is already attracting something of a buzz ahead of its world premiere in Berlin’s Panorama section. 

The feature debut of duo Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping, who together have amassed an impressive array of TV and stage credits (Freeman has directed episodes of Industry and This Is Going to Hurt), Femme follows Jules, a drag queen (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, recently seen in the Candyman remake) whose life is turned upside down following a brutal homophobic attack one night on the streets of London after a performance. But when, out of drag and unrecognizable, he visits a gay sauna and meets Preston, his assailant — an angry, deeply-closeted man (1917’s George MacKay, sporting some impressive neck tattoos) — he’s presented with the perfect opportunity to exact revenge. 

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“The idea was very much to do a kind of riff on hyper-macho, late night, neo-noir thrillers,” says Freeman, pointing to the output of the Safdie Brothers, Nicolas Winding Refn and Martin Scorsese as reference points. “It’s the stuff we really enjoyed watching together, but always felt like there wasn’t really space for queer characters in those films. It felt almost like a boys’ club that you weren’t allowed into.”

Having had this idea to do their unique “twist” on the genre but without the experience to get backing for a full feature, Femme began life as a proof-of-concept short film with the same name. 

Coming with an equally impressive casting of Paapa Essiedu (I May Destroy You) and Harris Dickinson (Triangle of Sadness) — “we just thought, we’re going to shoot for the stars,” notes Ng — the short Femme ended up doing far better than they thought, being nominated for a BAFTA last year and winning a British Independent Film Award.

The success of the short was one of the reasons for re-casting for the full-length Femme. “We just wanted to help define it as a completely new thing,” says Ng.

Using revenge movies, such as Taken, as a starting point, Freeman and Ng developed their story and characters into something very different. Without wanting to give too much away, what begins as a simple act of payback — Jules wanting to publicly out Preston by secretly videoing the two of them having sex — grows into something much more nuanced and emotionally damaging, blurring the worlds between thriller and edgy romance. And in crafting this tale, the filmmakers realized that the initial theme of drag actually extended across most of Femme‘s main characters. Jules and Preston may be markedly different people, but they each hide behind some performance of gender to gain power and status in their own individual worlds, be it queer or toxic masculinity. 

“The idea then became that Preston takes Jules’ drag, which is his source of power in the beginning of the film, away from him, and therefore his revenge is that he takes Preston’s drag, which is his performances of masculinity and heterosexuality, away from him,” says Freeman. 

Liam Neeson on a murderous rampage across Europe to kill those responsible for kidnapping his daughter, Femme isn’t. But it is definitely fresh and something that both filmmakers say they hadn’t seen on screen before (but wanted to). 

“The thing that is clearest to us is that we wanted to see a queer lead in a mainstream thriller,” says Ng. “It’s exciting to us that we can break into the mainstream with a non-mainstream type of character.”

And even before it bows in Berlin, Femme has already been credited with launching a new genre: “queer noir.”

Notes Freeman: “I think somebody else came up with that term, but we were like ‘oh, we like that’!”

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