On stage, drag artist Aphrodite Banks was a femme fatale: covered in war paint, with a cascade of curls lashing around her waist, she possessed the white-hot glow and understated confidence to match her Amazonian height and bearing. Offstage, like Jules, it’s simply female: the term for gay men who present or express themselves in a more feminine way, often used as an insult or dismissive even by their fellow community members. (Open a quick app like Grindr and see how often “no fems” appears as a conditional.) The former identity is indicative of the power of ostentation; The latter is, for many, a delicate weakness. How those attachments and stigmas clash with each other in one man’s body is the driving conflict in “Femme,” a tense and sometimes dizzying revenge drama from British novices Sam H. Freeman and Ng Chun-ping.
A pair of erotic performances by Nathan Stewart Jarrett (“Candyman”) and George MacKay (“1917”), locked in a nervous duet as two men with nothing in common but their sex lives, are the main selling point of this elegant look, a worthy fusion of uncompromising With praise for the genre’s fireworks and thoughtful, thoughtful character study. The stars also keep the film steadfast and emotionally believable when a solid yet powerful script, by novice directors, makes some wild, scheming moves at home. Notable glitches like these in the debut feature won’t stop “Femme” from ramping up festival dates – particularly in the LGBTQ+ sphere – following its premiere on Berlin’s Panorama strand, while arthouse distributors are also sure to want to get involved.
For Stuart Garrett, who’s been on Britain’s next big radar since his lead role in the teen sci-fi series “Misfits” more than a decade ago, “Femme” is a long-awaited signature showcase for his flexible, adaptable gifts: the film hinges on its credibility. In a complex spectrum of appearances and gender archetypes, and its extreme vulnerability in even the most overworked and walled-up of characters. We are first introduced to him as Aphrodite, spunky and unflinching as she flirts through a Shygirl lipsync at a gay club in East London. However, after the show, as Jules rushes to the store along the way to buy cigarettes, his glowing Aphrodite suit doesn’t look like a shield but a target, and he’s vulnerable to attacks from fanatics every day.
Sure enough, at the store, a group of young thugs are mocking him. Jules gives it his best shot, capturing the mixture of hate and intrigue in the stare of gang boss Preston (McKay), and feeding him suggestively. A fight ensued, gunshot and wounding as a monstrous misty hurricane of limbs, skin, and blood; Jules is the loser, after being viciously stripped and shredded. For weeks afterward, to the consternation of his outgoing friend and housemate Toby (John McCrea), he withdraws into himself.
When he ventures out again, it’s in the relatively secluded shadows of a gay sauna – often shooting at night, or in the cramped, low-light interior spaces, DP James Rhodes is wise to the different textures and hues of darkness that distinguish the secure air or seductive privacy from an unsuspecting threat. Visible. In the locker room, he again encounters Preston: full of sexual aggression and self-loathing, and oblivious to the identity of the man he had brutalized weeks earlier. They have rough, anonymous sex and exchange numbers.
At first, Jules’ motives in this literal case of sleeping with the enemy seem crystal clear: He’s after a revenge porn video that’s certain to ruin the life and social standing of a closeted tormentor if it leaks online. But the sticking point of infatuation in “Femme” is not this assignment, but his increasingly ambiguous investment in it, as scandalous and erotic trysts with Preston, an ostensibly wealthy merchant, become dinner dates and, in time, anxious signs of affection. Is Jules also an expert performer away from the club lights, quietly tugging along his prey with sweet submissive play? Or is an inner part of him actually subservient to Preston, whose short temper and emotional immaturity can’t quite hide the catharsis he feels at being able to live out his identity in the presence of one man?
Although the narrative is somewhat designed toward a big reveal – in which characters conveniently appear and disappear to speed things up – Freeman and Bing never force a conclusion. Nor is Stewart-Garrett’s graceful, graceful performance, which shimmers up and down various shades of masculinity requisite for his increasingly charged project: direct in the presence of Preston’s friends, womanly and taciturn when alone and at the center of one important focus. However, she becomes icy black when he feels other desires between them. He was given vital help in this regard by Buki Ebiesuwa’s elegant and edgy couture design, which perfectly conforms to the roles and rules of gender, attitude, and sexual power that can be incorporated into both casual streetwear and glamorous clothing. Viewed in three different iterations, a simple saffron yellow hoodie is a more versatile and versatile attire than you might ever imagine.
Brilliantly opposite Stuart Garrett MacKay, an actor the industry sporadically tries to model as an enthusiastic leading man – and who always seems more at home when drawn into darker, more perverted territory. His choice here plays cleverly on that very duality: never standing but standing, stamped to the throat with lewd tattoos, with a hushed voice choked with pent-up rage, he is a full-body fist of straight aggression, only gradually allowing himself erratic moments of honesty and humor in Jules’ presence. From Preston, one brief, impulsive click of the lips seems like a transformative miracle, though McKay never disguises the softest, most inexpressive boy in a capricious man to his end. “Femme” does not set out to forgive or make amends with this bully, merely to identify all its warring, unresolved parts–as exuberant and chaotic as Jules’ divided identities, which violently strike outward rather than inward.
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