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Femme 2023 Movie Review
Nathan Stewart-Jarrett killed it in the Candyman sequel and in Misfits and he slays all over again in this electric London-set noir thriller. Expanding on the short of the same name but taking it in a very different direction, co-writer-directors Sam H Freeman and Ng Choon Ping’s cracking debut feature brings a dangerously twisted frisson to the concept of code-switching.
The Londoner plays Jules – better known as mighty drag queen Aphrodite – who we meet on stage in the film’s fierce opening moments. But her power is cruelly robbed when a furtive glance from tracksuited-and-tattooed thug Preston (1917’s George MacKay) during a post-show ciggie break spirals into a brutal gay-bashing. Jules’s psychological wounds run deeper than the scar left on his forehead, leaving him unable to perform drag.
But this is no standard queer trauma narrative: it has a twist worthy of Hitchcock waiting in the wings. Spying Preston in a gay sauna a few months later while unrecognisable without his drag gear on, Jules acts on his seriously messed up attacker’s pick-up moves and sets upon a cunning ruse: he’ll use his unexpected anonymity to wreak revenge on this toxic closet case.
Murky morality abounds in the exhilarating Femme. It’s a credit to the filmmakers that this cat-and-mouse game takes such intriguing turns. Cinematographer James Rhodes ups the ante, piercing the dark of London’s backstreets and beats with neon flashes as Jules inserts himself into Preston’s life.
Stewart-Jarrett excels as Jules butches up to fit into Preston’s macho world, all the while snatching stolen moments of intimacy as he works the seduction angle. Crucially, Femme takes time to humanise both characters, amping up a sense of unfolding tragedy. MacKay brings shades of his brilliant, sexually ambiguous turn in True History of the Kelly Gang to this violently repressed man.
Of course, the real villain is the oppressive structures of the heteronormative patriarchy, raising all hell with its rigid and unhealthy expectations of masculinity. And there’s still no escaping that.