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Femme Is an Unsettling Queer Thrill Ride

Photo: courtesy Utopia Distribution.

For the queer community, drag is a powerful art form. It is a form of performance and gender-bending self-expression. Foremost starting in the Drag community is safety: it is a way to reclaim their power and a suit of armor to protect themselves. You could say that drag is all around us; it is the way we present ourselves to the world. How we present is how we protect ourselves in spaces we have to survive. In the queer revenge thriller Femme, writer-directors Ng Choon Ping and Sam H. Freeman use drag to blur the lines of power and take us on an unsettling ride.

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Candyman, Misfits) plays Jules, a drag performer in the London scene who goes by the name Aphrodite Jones. As the film opens, Jules puts on his drag like a suit of armor, taking the stage as Aphrodite. In all her glory while “Cleo” by Shygirl plays through the speakers, she puts on a show. Center stage and under the lights, Aphrodite enthralls the crowd. Later, at a local convenience store, she encounters Preston, played by George MacKay (1917, Pride). Preston and his goons begin to taunt Jules, still in drag. Jules counters their slurs and harmful words and it pushes Preston to the edge. As Jules turns the corner after leaving the store, Preston follows him and brutally attacks him.

Three months later, Jules is a shell of a person. He hasn’t left his apartment and hasn’t performed. His friends beg him to come out with them but Jules does not want to go to the club. Instead, he ventures out to a gay sauna. While he is there he crosses paths with Preston again. This time Preston does not recognize him because he is out of drag. Jules follows him over to the lockers where Preston takes a liking to him and pursues him sexually. It’s at this moment that Jules decides to seek revenge and take back the power that Preston stole from him.

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in 'Femme' (2023) - Utopia
Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in Femme. Photo: courtesy Utopia Distribution.

Femme is constantly wavering in what is right and what is wrong and who is the victim and who is the victimizer. It is this wavering that makes for a morally ambiguous and uncomfortable watch. It can be challenging to watch and understand the relationship between Preston and Jules. It perpetuates the trope of the closeted bully and queer victim falling in love. You see it in shows like Shameless (U.S., Mickey and Ian) and Sex Education (Adam and Eric). Of course, the portrayal of violence in these two examples does not come close to how it is depicted in this film. 

As Preston starts to soften around Jules, there is a feeling of empathy. You start to feel that Preston is a victim of toxic masculinity. Don’t get me wrong: he is incredibly self-loathing. His neck tattoos, the way he dresses, and his hard persona are all a part of Preston’s “drag”. He is a closeted man who is struggling with his internalized homophobia in a hyper-straight space. He presents himself as a hard thug to present dominance and wield his power. His one friend compares Preston to an abused dog who keeps coming back for more. There is empathy to be had for someone like Preston. However, he attacked Jules brutally in an alley. To take it a step further, Preston is a white cis-male who attacked a black queer person. 

In 2022, there was a 13.8% increase in reports based on sexual orientation in the United States. There was a 32.9% jump in reported hate crimes based on gender identity. The majority of attacks are on black trans women. It is a little morally murky when you have a Black queer man empathizing with their abuser. Especially when the basis of the film is about that queer person seeking revenge. Jules is obsessed with revenge throughout the film but there is still uncertainty as to how far he will go and if he starts to feel that empathy. Regardless of everything that develops throughout the little over 90-minute runtime, the weight of Preston’s attack is still felt throughout the film. 

George MacKay in 'Femme' (2023) - Utopia
George MacKay in Femme. Photo: courtesy Utopia Distribution.

I do think there is something to be said about the queer experience with Jules. For many queer people, there is a lot of drag that is presented to the world to make straight spaces comfortable and safe. It is because of Jules’ queerness and having to constantly put on drag to weave in and out of straight and queer spaces he can adapt to Preston’s life so quickly. It is almost astonishing to Preston how seamless it is for Jules to put on “hard dominance” drag to navigate in the hyper-masculine space. For many queer people, there is a lot of drag that is presented to the world to make straight spaces comfortable and to keep them safe. 

George MacKay and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett give very compelling nuanced performances. Because of how effective the writing is for Femme, you are constantly unsure of their motives. Both Mackay and Stewart-Jarrett do a remarkable job portraying both the internal and external struggles of their respective characters. Their chemistry together is electrifying and erotic. Something as small as a simple touch and glance will have this heart-pounding visceral reaction. This film might be a career-best for both MacKay and Stewart-Jarrett. 

It feels like a new era for queer films. Queer stories are transcending genres: they aren’t so focused on the “coming out” experience. They are telling other stories within the experiences. Some films like Bottoms and Love Lies Bleeding even just depict queer people just existing, never having this big introductory moment or having it be the lead trait in these characters’ stories. They simply exist. Although Femme tends to tread in murky moral ambiguity, it is a brilliant edition in a long list of queer films

Written by Chelsea Alexandra

Chelsea is a freelance writer and pop culture enthusiast and will talk to anyone who will listen about her favorite movies. She enjoys drinking a late night coffee that will keep her up all night and explaining why Armageddon (1998) is one of her favorite films.

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