Queer thriller ‘Femme’ grapples with revenge in a push-pull relationship

George Mackay and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in "Femme."
George Mackay and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in “Femme.”

The queer thriller/romance, “Femme,” is guaranteed to polarize viewers. This feature film debut of co-writers/co-directors Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping, based on their 2021 short of the same name, is an intense drama that examines issues of internalized homophobia, race, and revenge in troubling ways.

In a pre-credit sequence, Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), a Black drag queen who performs as Aphrodite Banks, spies Preston (George MacKay) outside of a club. While Preston is “scared away” from entering the club, he harasses Jules later that night in a convenience store. Preston, out with his mates, makes a disparaging remark towards Jules, who responds by dressing down his bully. Preston reacts by beating Jules bloody and stripping him of his clothes.

It is a difficult sequence to watch, but it sets the plot in motion. Three months later, Jules is still recovering from his trauma. He refuses to return to performing as Aphrodite, much to the chagrin of his roommate, Toby (John McCrea). When Jules unexpectedly sees Preston rejecting the advances of another man in a gay sauna, he follows his attacker outside. The two men connect, with Preston apparently unaware of Jules’ (masculine) identity. While Preston is arranging a date with Jules on the down low, Jules is planning to secretly record Preston having sex with him so he can upload it on a porn site to out him.

“Femme” creates its suspense by chronicling the uneasy relationship that develops between Jules and Preston. It is watching the characters employing codeswitching that makes the film so interesting. Jules acts “butch” and wears masculine clothes because Preston offensively texts Jules not to wear anything “faggy.” In contrast, Preston finds himself catching feelings for another man, despite wanting to keep his sexuality hidden from the world.

Unfortunately, the film only scratches the surface regarding the issues of race and masculinity, which is disappointing. It is quite discomfiting that the heavily tattooed Preston (who gives off serious skinhead vibes) insists on dominating Jules. Preston’s white male power is creepy — especially when he abandons Jules after having sex with him against a tree. It is never clear why Preston is attracted to Jules. It feels like a contrivance, and the internalized self-loathing Preston has about being gay feels both cliche and facile.

It does make sense that Jules is likely giving into Preston’s requests to be submissive to set up his revenge plan. And the film gets interesting when Jules gains some power over Preston. First, Jules earns the respects of Preston’s mates by beating them at the Street Fighter video game. (That Jules chooses a female avatar is a nice, if obvious, touch.) Jules even risks fondling Preston under the table at a nightclub while his friends are in close proximity, turning him on while also making him uncomfortable. When Jules dances sexily with one of Preston’s female friends, it creates a kind of jealousy in Preston that makes him suddenly submissive. Warned by one of Preston’s buddies that Preston can easily be enraged, Jules pushes his lover up to the line, and occasionally crosses it. The push-pull dynamic between them is the best part of the film.

Interestingly, “Femme” never quite invites a Stockholm Syndrome reading of the guys’ relationship where Jules falls for Preston. There is never any doubt that Jules is going to exact revenge. This means it is only a matter of time before Preston discovers Jules’ “real” identity and the two enemies-turned-lovers come to blows again.

The filmmakers’ point here is about Jules reclaiming power, but it may require a truckload of salt to appreciate that Jules would go to such great lengths to date his attacker and endure all the abuse Preston inflicts upon him. “Femme” never provides enough insight into its characters, which is its biggest frustration.

The strong performances compensate for the weak material. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and George MacKay both emit some real energy, and they are riveting to watch together. Jules, in particular, observes Preston with a mix of curiosity and wariness, and Stewart-Jarrett allows viewers to understand his every emotion in the process. The beauty of his performance is how layered it is, from Jules’ drag performance to his identity performance with Preston and his friends, as well as his friendship with Toby, which becomes fraught as Jules fixates on his plan.

As Preston, MacKay exudes some charisma, but he is best when he is vulnerable. Watching him deflate when his buddy Oz (Aaron Heffernan) divulges that Preston’s BMW isn’t his, is a revealing moment. The film could have benefitted from more scenes that puncture Preston’s macho posturing. Instead, MacKay lets the shame of his closeted tough guy percolate under the surface of his tattoos.

“Femme” is certainly provocative, but it falls short of its ambitions.

“Femme” | Directed by Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping | Opening March 22 at the IFC Center | Distributed by Utopia