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Femme Review: LGBT Noir For Vigilante Justice

  • Excellent performances from George MacKay and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett
  • Well-written, nuanced script
  • Can be difficult to watch

What does it mean to be masculine, and how is this concept tied to power and control? A queer revenge story about the reclamation of agency and assertion of identity, "Femme" is a rich and nuanced noir that continually defies expectations. The film, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, explores the relationship between a deeply closeted, hyper-masculine, would-be thug and the drag artist he victimizes. It's brought vividly to life by emotionally devastating performances from Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and George MacKay, whose willingness to be completely vulnerable makes the film an unexpected gem.

Jules (Stewart-Jarrett) is a popular drag performer, entirely in his element on the stage. But one night, he has a chance encounter with Preston (MacKay), a hot-tempered homophobe who physically lashes out at Jules after feeling emasculated in front of his friends. The result is a brutal beating that leaves Jules bleeding on the street and scarred for months afterward. Traumatized by this experience, he's a ghost of his former self, too shaken to return to the stage that was once his home.

Then something strange happens. He tears himself away from the video games he's been distracting himself with and makes an attempt to put himself out there by heading to a local bathhouse. To his surprise, he spots Preston there — but Preston doesn't recognize him outside of his drag costume. Filled with anger and anxiety, the kernel of a revenge plot begins to develop in Jules' mind. He fantasizes about seducing the deeply closeted man, recording their sexual encounter, and posting it online, outing Preston to the entire world.

Power and control

Little by little, "Femme" reveals itself as an elegant exploration of power dynamics in the form of a tense modern noir. As the two men become closer, they jostle for control of their relationship. Preston postures as a big, tough man who is only comfortable with their sexual encounters when he can dictate the terms. Any deviation from them risks his friends discovering the truth about his sexual identity. While Jules is happy to go along with this and play the perfect submissive partner, he too is asserting his authority by drawing Preston in closer, until he's in position to strike.

"Femme" spends the majority of its runtime grappling with questions of power and masculinity. If one is linked to the other, as Preston clearly seems to believe, this flies in the face of his actual relationship with Jules, who is much less traditionally masculine but seems to perpetually have the upper hand. It's fascinating to watch the characters evolve over the course of the film, as they take turns asserting their dominance. But we also see that this is a façade for both. Preston is merely putting on an act — one that's so close to his skin, it's barely discernible as pretense. But it is an act nonetheless. Moreover, although Jules becomes obsessed with the idea of outing Preston and getting his ultimate revenge, he has moments of doubt that betray his reluctance to have complete power over the other man.

"Femme" succeeds in part because of its tightly written script. This creates that rarest of things for a revenge thriller: Characters who all act according to consistent internal logic. Preston and Jules always make sense, even when they're behaving foolishly or self-destructively. We can always understand exactly why they're doing what they're doing. This creates a richer experience for the audience, allowing viewers to emotionally connect and feel some level of sympathy for these characters, even when their actions are repellent. The cycle of shame and deception has them both so trapped, it's difficult not to pity them.

Two incredible performances

"Femme" would be nothing without the spectacular performances of George MacKay and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. MacKay brings a tightly coiled energy to his caricature of a real man: Preston is dangerous, reactionary, and prone to pop off at the slightest provocation. But underneath that, there's a deep vulnerability within him. What he does at the beginning of this film is unforgivable, yet we do begin to feel something for this wretch of a character. Stewart-Jarrett takes us on an equally powerful emotional journey: He is robbed of his self-confidence, retreats into seclusion, and eventually reasserts himself through a revenge plot that will allow him to regain his agency — albeit at a very high price. 

The two actors have tremendous chemistry together. Their relationship starts off as 100% toxic and destructive, but there are notes of affection that creep in, almost against their will. Still, is it enough to overcome the horror of what transpires between them? Jules may grow to feel sorry for his emotionally and sexually repressed lover, but there's no way to undo the brutal violence that brings them together. "Femme" is not necessarily an easy watch, and it forces audiences to embrace two characters who do some pretty unsavory things. But its two-handed character study is utterly compelling. We look into the eyes of men yearning to be allowed to be who they truly are — even if they don't know what that means. With stunning performances and an incredible script, "Femme" is an intimate and emotionally raw new take on the noir genre.

Release plans for "Femme" have yet to be announced.