Thorny Queer Revenge Thriller 'Femme' Explores the Performance of Identity

George Mackay and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in "Femme"

George Mackay Nathan Stewart-Jarrett

(Photo: Agile Films)

Performance lies at the heart of Femme – not just with the number performed by drag queen Aphrodite Banks in the film’s opening. The piercing feature debut from Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping is filled with subversive, confronting observations about performance of identity, how queer people choose or are asked to conceal and exaggerate parts of themselves – not because they uniformly want to assimilate into heteronormative society, but because expressing themselves is an inherently validating and radical act. Freeman and Ng’s film is uninterested in the tropes and discourses surrounding today’s queer cinema, electing to tell an urgent story in a simmering neo-noir world that raises complicated questions about queer justice and belonging.

Expanding on a 2021 short film of the same name, Femme stages a uniquely inventive/uncomfortable story of sexual revenge. When Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) is violently assaulted by aggressively masculine Preston (George MacKay) while dressed as his alter-ego Aphrodite, he rescinds from his active social and creative life. That is, until he spots Preston at a gay sauna, where his attacker can’t recognise him out of costume. A strange, furtive romance begins between the two men, with Preston taking Jules out for fancy dinners and having sex with him in the woods, in a car – sometimes, if Preston’s brave enough to bring him into the masculine space, his bed.

Jules has an unusual plan for revenge – he’s become fixated on gay pornography that outs straight men by furtively filming them having sex. The complex shades of vindication and arousal Jules gets from these porn videos is jarring and arresting; Jules shifts from a withdrawn state to someone liberated by finding a hyper-specific type of justice that he knows will satisfy his woundedness and completely devastate his attacker’s life. And yet, he knows to keep it secret from his friends – being intimate and duplicitous with someone who hate crimed you is a dangerous place for a vulnerable queer person to be.

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in "Femme"

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in "Femme"

(Photo: Agile Films)

Of course, there’s also the fact that filming someone having sex without their consent is a sex crime. Some of the porn that excites Jules will be staged, with both partners fully aware of the camera trained on them – what Jules wants to do is not. But by immersing us in Jules’ charged, subjective perspective, Freeman and Ng build a strong emotional foundation for their protagonist’s plan; we are psychologically fused with Jules, with questions of morality floating around but never obstructing the film’s gathering momentum drive. You’re hit by the stirring thought that, in some ways, this is a healing act for Jules – an act of retaliation that regrants the power that was violently taken away from him. This is, of course, fiction – a way to imagine justice outside the limited options queer people are afforded in modern society.

As it’s Jules’ world we’re drawn into, Stewart-Jarrett has the more complex performance. The character has to inhabit so many contrasting, conflicting spaces where his safety and identity fluctuate depending on who he’s with or who can see him. It’s not just impressive acting, it’s thematically compelling – we watch a traumatized queer man navigate spaces that want to alienate him, but by performing “straightness” he gets access to power that would traditionally be used against him.

This journey also affects Preston, who feels frustrated that Jules can fluidly navigate both straight and queer spaces with confidence when he is terrified of having eyes on him in either. MacKay has an intensity to him that separates him from a lot of rising British actors (interestedly, Harris Dickinson played Preston in the Femme short film, while I May Destroy You’s Paapa Essiedu played Jules) and the volatile edge to his performance helps overcome initial wariness felt that Preston is an embodiment of the tired “homophobe is repressing their queerness” trope

One key aspect of the character feels unexplored; according to Preston and his friends, he’s unable to control his actions when he gets wound up, resulting in violence he has no ability to stop. The fact that it’s spoken multiple times in dialogue means Freeman and Ng understand how hollow such an explanation sounds out loud (it verges on the dangerous “gay panic” legal defense). Still, by centralizing Jules over Preston – and by having the former trying to understand the latter the whole time – Preston’s arc pales in comparison.

That said, Jules is not just the most interesting character, but the most valuable one to explore – a story of turning his survival into active, thorny liberation that never sacrifices his queerness. A climactic violent struggle, and especially our last glimpse of Preston once it has finished, maybe all we need to understand a person who has irreparably affected Jules’ life but who he doesn’t want to define it. Femme marks a remarkable, bracing entry for Freeman and Ng into not British film, but queer cinema further afield – the gauntlet has been thrown down for new LGBTQ+ films to challenge and confront how their audience understands acceptance and justice

Picture shows: Rory Doherty

Rory Doherty is a writer of criticism, films, and plays based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He's often found watching something he knows he'll dislike but will agree to watch all of it anyway. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

More to Love from Telly Visions