The new LGBT erotic thriller ‘Femme’ offers a controversial take on the aftermath of a hate crime that navigates the line between revenge…and a burgeoning romance between perpetrator and survivor.
There’s a lot of moral murkiness going on in Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping‘s erotically charged film, which is an adaptation of their short of the same name. Viewers looking for a straightforward revenge plot wherein a queer man of colour, Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), tracks down his white attacker, Preston (George MacKay), for some divine retribution had best look elsewhere.
Femme is far more interested in exploring its two leads – be it their motivations or their responses – as part of its investigation of power, sex and gender roles.
Jules is introduced applying make-up to become his drag persona, Aphrodite. The character is flamboyant, outgoing, and outspoken, which are qualities that lend themselves well to the LGBT club (less so the real world). When Jules ducks out, still in drag, for cigarettes at the nearby convenience store, he runs into Preston and his friends, who berate him. The problem? Jules saw Preston eying him up from afar earlier and the drag queen doesn’t hesitate to aloud in front of everyone.
What follows is a visually brief, but narratively efficient hate crime: the attack doesn’t last long but its impact is clear when Femme jumps ahead three months and Jules is still processing his trauma. He no longer performs, and he barely speaks or leaves the apartment he shares with roommates Toby (John McCrea) and Alicia (Asha Reid).
A chance encounter at the bathhouse puts Jules and Preston on a collision course: Preston doesn’t recognize Jules out of drag, but he is attracted to him. The lack of recognition allows Jules to engage in dangerous subterfuge: he follows Preston to his car and goes back to Preston’s flat where the pair are nearly caught by Preston’s friends from the attack.
The dialogue in Femme is reflective of gay male hook-up culture, but it’s also instrumental to the film’s consideration of toxic masculinity, internalized homophobia and peer pressure. When Jules first arrives at Preston’s house, he’s ordered to take off his clothes and not make noise (during sex) or Preston will cover his mouth. The behaviour is emblematic of two things: Preston is closeted, but just as importantly, he’s controlling. After lying to his friends about their relationship (Preston claims they know each other from prison – another red flag), Jules is ordered to give Preston his phone and “Wait for my text, yeah? Good boy.”
The interplay between sex and danger is an essential component of the Erotic Thriller subgenre. In these films, sex and sexuality are dangerous; every connection could possibly lead to orgasm…or death. These principles are clearly on display in Femme when Jules elects to continue seeing his attacker, going on dates and ultimately engaging in repeated bouts of brief, rough sex in isolations locations like cars, parking lots and underpasses.
The narrative offers a straightforward motivation for Jules: he’s engaging Preston in a sexual relationship in order to record and eventually expose him online (ironically the porn videos Jules watches for inspiration are all simulated scenarios from major porn sites, suggesting some inherent flaws in Jules’ plan). The problem is that the longer the pair interact, the more they come to like and even fall for one another, despite the lingering threat of physical danger (to Jules) and reputational damage (to Preston) when the truth inevitably comes out.
Femme works in no small part because of the fully committed performances by both leads. Stewart-Jarrett, best known Stateside for his small role in Candyman, is fantastic as Jules: equal parts damaged, and emotionally closed off, the actor finds the delight and surprise in Jules’ dangerous ruse. It’s a fascinating and complicated examination of PTSD, as well as a pointed commentary on the risks of being a sexually active gay man.
The longer the facade plays, the more Jules re-engages with the world, though it’s intrinsically motivated by his relationship to Preston and not friends like Alicia and Toby, the latter of whom clearly fancies him and says unhelpful things like “I just want my friend back.”
What works is that Preston isn’t a straight thug who targeted a queer man of colour for a gay bashing. This is internalized homophobia stemming from a lifetime of queer repression and socially constructed ideals of manhood. It would have been simple to make Preston a straightforward villain, but Freeman and Choon Ping refuse to reduce the character to a one-dimensional caricature.
Preston is complicated: while his appearance, history and demeanour are confronting, he’s both smarter, kinder and more ambitious than he initially lets on. It’s a very complicated character and MacKay does exemplary work to balance the character so that we yearn for his comeuppance, even as we understand Jules’ (sexual and emotional) attraction as the film progresses.
In the press notes for the film, Freeman and Choon Ping elaborate on their desire to unpack how everyone’s life is actually “drag”: life is a performance made up of societal expectations, social media filters, and personal ambitions.
Jules is both the confident drag queen glimpsed at the beginning of the film AND the emotionally vulnerable man with complicated feelings for his attacker. Femme is interested in exploring these nuances rather than present a traditional, uncomplicated narrative wherein “good” triumphs over “evil.”
As a result, the film will be controversial to audiences who expect a morally black and white conflict between these men. Some viewers will undoubtedly judge Jules’ decision to play the role of sexually available partner to Preston’s rough and ready closet-case; they may balk at or be conflicted by the sexually charged scenes of intimacy (real talk: the sex is hot).
That’s what makes Femme such a fascinating character study. Not only does it reveal what these characters have been hiding from themselves, it turns a mirror on the audience to ask what a desirable outcome possibly could (or should) be.
Ultimately what we want for Jules and Preston by film’s end says more about us than about the film. Femme is happy to play in those morally murky grey areas and it’s better off for it. 4/5
Femme debuted at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival. It does not currently have a release date.