Credit: Signature Entertainment/Agile Films
by Dhruv Goyal Featured Film Horizon Line

Femme — Sam H. Freeman & Ng Choon Ping

March 22, 2024

Hollywood film scholar Thomas Schatz’s essay “Film Genre and the Genre Film” describes our relationship with the film genre as both static and dynamic. The static approach involves studying what he calls the genre’s “deep structure”: conventions that, through repetition, have become unchangeable rules. In a revenge film, this equals our expectation to see a scenario that obeys the “eye for an eye” (maybe an additional leg or head, too) principle; the protagonist will achieve catharsis only when he inflects the same level of pain (or more) on the one who inflicted it on him. However, a specific film within that genre may not want to obey this established “contract” between us and the film. This second way of understanding genre — through what Schatz calls the “surface structure” — is dynamic, consistently shaped by evolving (or devolving) cultural attitudes, politics, economics, and so forth, that inflect changes on our relationship with film genre.

Sam H. Freeman & Ng Choon Ping’s feature-length adaptation of their BAFTA-nominated short film, also titled Femme (2021), is a fascinatingly strange film caught in the crossfire of obedience toward and rebellion against the conventional film genre. It’s marketed as a “Queer Neo-Noir Revenge Drama” — a label that in and of itself captures this central tension. The directors elaborate on this in the press notes: they believe Femme is them putting their “own stamp, on a genre [they] love but from which [they, as gay filmmakers] often felt excluded.” They believe that centering a familiar narrative around an unfamiliar protagonist — in this case, a gay drag queen — will accomplish this.

But Femme’s setup seems overly reliant on our familiarity with the “deep structure” of the neo-noir revenge drama. Oversaturated neon blues and blood-red disco lights fill the screen when it’s not pitch black. They blur and obfuscate and confuse, but they also protect. The same cannot be said of antiseptically white light peeking into this darkly colorful night from buses and grocery stores. First, it threatens to mute the color’s vibrancy: our protagonist, Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), a famous drag artist in London, is subject to homophobic slurs from Preston (George MacKay) and his group of friends, all of whom seem to have wandered off of Guy Ritchie’s last (or next) movie. Then, it seeks to erase it: Preston brutally assaults Jules after he retaliated to his and his friends’ slurs by accusing Preston of being a “faggot.” Three months later, still reeling from the trauma, Jules unexpectedly sees Preston at a gay sauna. But the seeing isn’t reciprocated, as Jules — minus the flamboyantly feminine makeup and costume of his drag artist persona — is unrecognizable to Preston. Jules realizes this and plots his revenge to expose Preston’s deeply closeted homosexuality by filming them having sex and posting it online. 

But why does he want to get his revenge by further exploiting himself? Is Jules really attracted to Preston in a provocatively perverse way, like Isabelle Huppert’s rape victim is to her perpetrator in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016)? Is he doing this just to become famous? A brief zoom-in focusing on the millions of views of a similar video about “exposing a straight man’s homosexuality” suggests so. But that’s not enough. The film’s “surface structure” — everything from Jules’ career to his friendships to his credit card balance to his recovery — gives us too little to convince us that this is the most convincing punishment for his assaulter. One could argue that that’s the point: Jules is acting out irrationally because he’s traumatized. But the film elides this section of the film almost entirety. The central thing it establishes (that has a clever payoff) is that Jules plays Street Fighter V exceptionally well: he uses a virtual femme persona to exert his dominance over hypermasculine hunks, in a way he can’t in reality. The rest of his recovery is devoid of such detail — it relies on us accepting that Jules has no other option than to expose Preston’s sexuality because that’s just how genre convention works.

The two performances, then, have to carry the burden of playing as much against convention as they do to it. And for the film’s unconvincing first half, they, more than anything else, keep us engaged. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett has the meatier part to play here because he has to switch between being a fearless drag queen and a petrified man many times within the blink of an eye. He naturally embodies these broader, more readily identifiable “masculine” traits — of protest, over-confidence, and strength — when dressed in feminine clothes. And he’s equally adept, if not better, playing against this type when dressed in men’s clothing; his glistening, upturned eyes immediately make us care for him. Conversely, MacKay’s performance as the tatted-up, brick wall Preston is almost consistently repulsive. Almost. Because there’s more than a hint of suppression in his choky voice, a rustiness accumulated from not having said anything other than rehearsed words that — by convention — make him belong to his gang of thug-like mates.

The film’s second half recognizes this and, first softly, then loudly, chips away at almost everything conventional. The overly edited, slapped-together montage of dispassionate but erotically charged animalistic sex between the two pauses for a moment of genuinely tender and passionate sex; Preston’s stiff, vein-popping neck relaxes to reveal his schoolboyish face; Jules’ drag-queen act also begins to reappear, albeit with a sinister touch of taunting. Effectively, the film plays a game of provocative switcheroo: Jules becomes dominant, and Preston becomes submissive. Does this also mean Jules has become “masculine” and Preston the “femme”? It’s an enormous credit to the lead performances and the directors’ ending — bound to generate much-heated discussion — that this ambiguity remains even after the film has ended. It’s the sort of ambiguity that benefits a film that wants to operate within genre conventions but also wants to put its own spin on it. It’s the friction, not either adherence to genre convention or total abandonment of it, that also extends to the notion of gender in Femme, leaving it to feel, at all times, both static and dynamic.

CAST: Sam H. Freeman & Ng Choon Ping;  CAST: George MacKay, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Aaron Heffernan, John McCrea;  DISTRIBUTOR: Utopia;  IN THEATERS: March 22;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 39 min.