‘Femme’ review: Drag queen seeks revenge in gnarly thriller

Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping's feature-length debut Femme is both a movie of our moment and wildly

Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping's feature-length debut Femme is both a movie of our moment and wildly overdue. A savage deconstruction of the forms of drag we all wear when we walk out the door, it funnels very themes of gender presentation into a thriller context, and it lets its marginalized characters be complex in ways that go well beyond wardrobe. 

Basically, if you've been starving for LGBTQ characters behaving badly onscreen, then Femme is here to you. It's story of a drag queen who flips the script his gay-basher — then get admirably murkier with each step, unearthing empathy from violence and sweetness out of pity. In what could've been a straight-forward revenge tale, Femme rejects the straight in favor of something fascinatingly messier. 

That's not always for the . One might wish there had been a bit more fatale in this Femme. Closer in tone to the self-abusing cinema of Catherine Breillat (Anatomy of , Abuse of Weakness) than it is to the lurid excesses of Paul Verhoeven, you might find yourself dreaming of a scene that echoes the one in Showgirls where Nomi Malone maniacally drop-kicks a hotel suite full of perverts. Femme dashes such dreams. Revenge should always be a complicated dish, but sometimes you just really want it served hot, ya know?

What is Femme about?

Still, there is hotness to be found in great abundance in Femme. We first meet Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett from Utopia and the 2021 Candyman) done up as his stage-obliterating alter ego Aphrodite Banks, a towering glamazon who drives the crowd at his local London drag club to near hysteria with his opening performance. Inside that kingdom, he is queen. But Femme is wise to the darkness that lies just beyond the four small walls of safe spaces. When Jules — still in drag — runs to the corner mart for a pack of cigarettes, that armor of fierceness he's built suddenly transforms into a target under brutal fluorescent light.

And when a gang of belligerent drug dealers led by a rabid dog named Preston (George MacKay from 1917) set their sights on him, Jules finds himself cornered and desperately outnumbered. He tries to summon his inner Aphrodite and give back as hard as he gets, but it's not a fair fight, and Jules is left bleeding and half-naked on the pavement, rattled to his core. 

to three months later, and Jules no longer leaves his apartment. His implore him to summon some of his former strength, but he can only find enough to play Street Fighter on the couch. Then one fateful night, Jules finally manages to muster the will to head out to the gay sauna, when who should appear through the steam but Preston, his attacker. It's a twist of fate too wild to be ignored, so Jules follows Preston to the locker room. But instead of striking back, Jules finds something much curiouser happens. Let the fuckfest commence.

Femme delivers a bold tale of sex and revenge. 

Credit: Fantasia International Film Festival

It's implied that Jules is looking to honey-trap Preston in order to record one of their sexual encounters and post the footage online, outing Preston and destroying his life. However, Stewart-Jarrett plays these moments extremely close to the vest. As Jules googles “Outing My Straight Neighbor” porn, it's never entirely clear whether he's crafting a plot or legitimately turned on. And it's probably both.

The relationship between Jules and Preston grows more complicated with every thrusting tryst. Preston's posturing macho-top demands – which include for Jules to not dress “too femme” – begin to dissolve as Jules insinuates himself past Preston's defenses. And Preston begins letting Jules see a vulnerability underneath that laddie drag. A simple kiss on the cheek lands like an explosion. And before long, Jules finds himself in the power position. Although it should be noted that even as we watch their dynamic shift, their sexual positions never do. Femme knows the power in bottoming! 

Femme asks who's topping who — and how.

Being attracted to danger is not in any way, shape, or form an exclusively queer trait. Just ask any hetero dope who's been swindled in film noir. But this form of sexualized self-abuse from gay people isn't seen on the screen nearly often enough. We're not usually given the space to be knotty and complicated. Too often, we're either relegated to victimized characters of uplift and canned decency, like in Philadelphia, or we're full-on villains, like Sharon Stone's homicidal bisexual in Basic Instinct, or the queer-coded baddies of Hitchcock's Rope, or nearly every '90s-era Disney animated feature.

Seeing a complicated person making good decisions for bad reasons and bad decisions for good reasons — and everything in between — should be the standard for everybody. Alain Guiraudie's 2013 thriller Stranger by the Lake remains perhaps the gold standard in this dark respect, as its lead character can't stop being turned on by the dude he's pretty sure is off serial-killing all of the other dudes at the gay beach in his downtime.

Attraction to what unnerves us is universal across the sexual orientation spectrum. And the seductive draw of danger won't ever be stamped out, no matter how many fiercely written screeds about canceling unlikable characters get posted on social media. Human psychology is a risky business. And at their best, the movies can be the lantern up these worst impulses – not just to map a way past them, but to illuminate and capture those desires in and of themselves. They are worthy of acknowledgment, as are all human traits. Denial leads nowhere good.

A thriller like Femme is just the tragic flip side to all of the romantic comedies where characters lie about themselves in order to seem cooler to win over the one they love. The same tension is at play here: When will the other person find out the secret? And how will this betrayal play out in the last act? The threat of violence is obviously keener for Jules than it was for, say, Jennifer Garner when Mark Ruffalo found out she was actually . Femme‘s our feel-bad version, where it's violence that rings true. We're all wearing some of disguise every day, and we're all terrified we'll be found out. 

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett leaves slightly too much to the imagination.

As we gear up for the big collision between the wary lovers, Femme‘s reticence to give us a proper into Jules's true intentions finally outlives its usefulness. But defiantly, frustratingly, both Stewart-Jarrett's performance and the script refuse to take a stand. The movie feels as unsure about what Jules wants as Jules seems to be. Is this still revenge for him? Or has his anger morphed into some other sort of passion? Even as tempers flare and fists fly, the worst Jules can summon up is, “I felt sorry for you.” The film wants to have it every way, but its indecision nearly ends up at neither.

Perhaps the filmmakers bit into too ambitious or ambiguous a narrative for their first feature. The last act turns too plot-focused, detouring from an intimate character study into a triumphant return to the stage, a birthday extravaganza, and friends with vendettas manipulating public scenes. And to add to the jumble, some of this starts to be told from Preston's point of view, when we'd been following Jules exclusively before this. Then, just as hastily, the screen empties out for our showdown – with a dozen balls in the air, the filmmakers decide to let most of them fall wherever. This is a disappointing simplification when so many earlier choices had been anything but. The gears of the script become noisy, drowning out its particulars.

Still, the film does find a nicely enigmatic grace note to leave us on, and Stewart-Jarrett and MacKay do good enough work that they nearly over the shoddiest parts of the script. They manage to make a lot of emotional from their character's numerous contradictions. MacKay is especially excellent in this regard, threading trauma and self-hate through Preston's alpha posturing; even at his most confused, Preston feels liquid clear. 

So, even if the journey Femme takes us on is sometimes as ragged as a scar, even when it's making us wince, it's still worth running a finger along. Every inch, all the way through to its bitter end. There are lessons in its roughness, and beauty among its uglier bits. And more still to learn from the makeup and cut-up frocks and hoodies and Polo shirts and buzzcuts that Jules and Preston and every single one of us mask ourselves in. We all think the scars disappear, but they're always there, screaming. And one reach under the armor, one feel of that flesh underneath can undo it all, leaving nothing but puddles of fabric on the floor.

Femme was reviewed out Fantasia International Film Festival 2023, where it made its North American Premiere.

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