Review: In 'Femme,' a secret act of vengeance comes disguised as erotic flirtation

The most revelatory aspect of the art of drag is how it lays bare the centrality of performance in our everyday lives. That’s most obvious when it comes to thinking about gender. Wigs, heels and makeup go a long way toward revealing femininity to be a kind of armature deployed as intentionally on the streets as it is on a stage. In “Femme,” Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping’s debut feature, that kernel of truth becomes the anchor for a deliciously vicious London-set revenge thriller.

When Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) steps into the spotlight at a bar as his alter ego, Aphrodite, you can see he’s in his element. With voguing dancers flanking her, Aphrodite is aptly named. She is a goddess of the night. If you saw her lit only by moonlight, you’d be forgiven for being so taken with her grace. But such magic tends to disappear under the humbling fluorescents of a corner store, particularly unkind to drag makeup.

“Is that a bloke?” Jules overhears a friend ask Preston (George MacKay of “1917”), as Aphrodite stands in line waiting to get a pack of cigarettes. Quietly, in a tight close-up, you see the queen trying to figure out how best to react to Preston’s posturing homophobia. Should she shrink herself into nothing or try to shine as brightly as she’d done on stage?

She opts for the latter. “How can you call me a fag in front of all your friends when I caught you checking me out earlier?” she says. All too quickly the scene devolves into a violent blur. Stripped, kicked and recorded on Preston’s phone throughout the ordeal, Jules is left with nothing. No wig. No dress. No comebacks. No dignity.

Imagine his luck, then, when one day at a bathhouse, Jules spots his assailant (all abs, tats and attitude). In a split second, whatever self-pity had taken a hold of him following the attack is gone. He pursues Preston (who, it seems, doesn’t recognize his victim), hops in his car and kicks off the erotic, tense tête à tête that structures this slick, stylish queer neo-noir.

Scouring the web for sex videos of outed masc “straight” boys, Jules begins concocting a plan. If he can get Preston on camera, maybe he can finally find closure, find a way to make good on the taunting line that first egged this loutish guy into senseless violence. Pulsing with Adam Janota Bzowski’s drone-like synth score, lit by James Rhodes’ neon-tinged cinematography and cut with flair by Selina Macarthur, that scene is but one moment when “Femme” firmly establishes itself as a bold self-assured debut.

Already a keen performer, Jules quickly becomes everything a closeted guy would want. Using his coyness as his most versatile seductive power, Jules (and, in turn, Stewart-Jarrett) nails the role of homme fatale the film requires. That includes dressing “normal” for his dinner “dates” with Preston and playing into the fantasies he knows excite him.

These late night encounters begin with a wild kind of violent, volatile chemistry. But they soon become more tender. Away from his mates, Preston is much softer than he purports to be when drowning in oversized sweatshirts and hardened grins. And armed with such a protective partner (or maybe so close to recording his revenge sex tape), Jules is finally able to climb out of the depression that had derailed him.

The question throughout the film, of course, is whether this budding relationship is or could be real. These are two young men who move in worlds that constantly demand that they perform. Both are experts at code-switching and calibrating their moves, their words and even their bodies in any given context. The two begin by offering one another versions of themselves they can’t show others. And as they each wonder whether such vulnerability will be anything but a liability, we’re left to wonder instead whether film and romance alike can end in anything but violence.

To watch Stewart-Jarrett (a glittering steel blade) and MacKay (a hardened fist blooming) play this pair of wounded would-be lovers is to witness two actors walking on a razor’s edge. Their characters’ mercurial motivations are often violently splintering, to the point where you’re never sure what, if anything, is authentic after all.

Within that funhouse mirror of an erotic-thriller premise, “Femme” proves to be a gorgeously mounted meditation on queer and queered performance. As Freeman and Ng’s film arrives at its necessarily cruel, bloody ending — as surprising as it is inevitable — you’re left as torn as its central pair. Bruised, yes. But perhaps all the stronger for it.

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