Femme Review: Revenge Thriller Dances on the Edge

Two powerhouse performances drive edgy tale

Take a walk on the wild side with Femme. This envelope-pushing thriller is an exhilarating work that leaves a viewer uneasy, edgy, and emotionally pummelled. It struts a dark seduction, flaunting the dressings of a revenge classic. But there’s something much different underneath. It’s a film in drag, decked out with elements of performance that fabulously challenge our ideas of gender.

Femme takes to heart RuPaul’s oft-quoted expression that “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” In fact, it begins with a drag queen. Jules (Candyman‘s Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) owns the stage performing in drag at an East London club. She turns heads spinning killer tricks and dance moves. Sporting vivacious make-up and hyper-feminine clothes that hug their athletic frame, Jules’ drag persona strikes just the right bit of gender fuck to inspire a double take.

Outside the club, Jules catches an ultra-masculine onlooker. Preston (1917’s George MacKay) doesn’t even need a second glance. He likes what he sees.

However, when Preston’s mates hurl a slur at Jules and he stands up for himself, Preston pummels him in a brutal face-saving assault. Femme opens with a punch—a brutally violent altercation that illustrates the risk of still being visibly queer in 2024.

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Cut to a year later and Jules’ scar has healed—physically, anyway. Jules follows the psychological healing process, though, by visiting a bathhouse. He doesn’t want action. He just wants to watch and feel comfortable in a safe queer space. But when a familiar voice punctuates the heated silence with homophobic rhetoric, Jules gets an idea. So begins a new seduction as the hunted becomes the hunter.

If Jules’ drag performances are a solo act, his dates with Preston are a feat of double drag. Sure, Jules is a total trade out of drag, but as a boy, Preston is a true drag king. Decked out in a full body canvas of tattoos and street clothes, Preston also makes gender a performance. His coarse, street-wise vernacular complements his macho slouch and manspreading. Take one look at MacKay’s eyes, though, and they’re an obvious tell that Preston’s terrified of being found out.

Take another glance at MacKay’s eyes, though, and one also sees that Preston really cares for Jules. No matter how roughly he fucks him and no matter how badly he treats him, there’s a visibly repressed longing that almost begs for him to be discovered. He knows that Jules is braver than he.

Femme proves a boldly subversive take on the revenge thriller as Jules draws Preston’s internalised homophobia out with plans to expose him. Fuelled by a fascination with revenge porn videos that out gay dudes who pass as straight, enjoying sex with other men getting off by dominating them, Jules coaxes Preston into feeling at ease in the company of men. Femme dispenses with simplified notions of gender and queerness. These are flawed, complicated, and messy characters. But the more uncomfortable it feels, the closer it hits to being an authentically true representation that exceeds the relatively sanitized versions of gay characters who, more often than not, drive even the best of queer cinema.

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There’s no clear hero or villain here. Rather, Femme is to queer cinema what Elle was to indie arthouse movies. Giving Isabelle Huppert’s performance a run for her money, Stewart-Jarrett’s astonishingly nuanced and downplayed performance is a feat of brooding, simmering anger. Yet Jules’ refusal to be a victim and his eagerness to toy with notions of consent, his willingness to let Preston brutalise and demean him—or, at least, his effort to lead Preston into situations that invite brutalisation—let him audaciously straddle the roles of victor/victim, just as a drag show lets one be both Victor and Victoria.

MacKay, meanwhile, absolutely runs with the showier of the two roles. Preston is a feat of brooding toxic masculinity. However, the hunger and fragility with which MacKay imbues him doesn’t make him an outright baddie. It’s refreshing to see such a multifaceted queer film dispense with the good/evil binary. The cinematography by James Rhodes, meanwhile, complements this dark feat of edgy representations. Femme exists in a world of dark shadows—back alleys, parking lots, and night clubs—where neon lights frequently pop to let people in hiding show their true colours.

Expanding upon their short film, writers and directors Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping make a thrilling feature debut. Femme doesn’t simply push the envelope, it dances on the edge.

Femme opens in Toronto on March 29 at TIFF Lightbox.



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