It’s near-impossible to make a revenge narrative that doesn’t serve as a commentary on clichéd gender roles. Male-centered vengeance stories, even at their most knowingly ludicrous, typically focus on wounded men aiming to reassert the dominance stripped of them; female-centered ones are about why women shouldn’t be underestimated because of stereotypical, outdated ideas of femininity. It’s an enduring, still-thrilling formula even as the boldest films within this pantheon can’t help reverting back to this template. The greatest strength of Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping’s stylish debut Femme is their self-awareness as to how pervasive this genre trait is even within an unmistakably queer narrative, making their protagonist’s quest for vengeance a borderline-B-plot within a character study of increasing moral murkiness. It won’t be anywhere near as liable for highly charged discourse, but in its best moments it feels positively reminiscent of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, another seemingly straightforward revenge tale flipped on its head by the way power dynamics subtly evolve.

Drag performer Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) is the life and soul of every party, a status dramatically transformed when a straight guy (George McKay) attacks Jules, having him belittled in front of friends for checking him out whilst dressed up. In the months that pass, Jules becomes a hermit, but one evening strikes up the courage to go to a gay sauna––not for sex, but as an attempt to force himself back into old surroundings. There he sees his attacker, an obviously closeted guy physically threatening anybody who comes onto him within a space designed for that. Not recognizing him out-of-drag, Jules is singled out by him as a suitable sexual conquest, the first awkward meeting of many as his feelings towards his attacker––who we learn is an “entrepreneur” called Preston––grow complicated. The desire (and a plan) to get revenge is there, but so is a genuine, complicated sexual chemistry in which the balance of power never stays with one party for long.

Jules’ plan is ill-thought; outing his attacker as a self-loathing, closeted gay by secretly filming a sex tape and sharing it online. That this lack of consent would ensure any video counts as “revenge porn,” a criminal offense in England, hasn’t been considered. In fact, the idea sprouts organically from the character recognizing the unstoppable popularity of amateur porn clips in which “straight” guys are caught in the act while not stopping to realize the inherent artifice of this genre. Anybody can film a hook-up and lie in the video description that it’s their neighbor or step-brother cheating on their girlfriend, even exploiting those invented parts within a role-play fantasy for the camera; whether Jules recognizes this falseness is left ambiguous. What isn’t is that he starts buying into his relationship with Preston as a real-life manifestation of this dynamic, allowing himself to forget why they’ve crossed paths to enjoy the submissive fantasy of being an unpredictably violent, closeted man’s secret fuck buddy. At least for a little while.

The filmmakers, too, wish the audience to buy into this fantasy––or, at the very least, momentarily pause their grappling with the intriguingly taboo nature of its allure. It fits neatly into the erotic thriller subgenre by design, of course, but that undersells the directors’ improbable accomplishment of finding something straightforwardly sensual within the moral knottiness at play without succumbing to anything resembling lazy “enemies-to-lovers” character arcs. We know nothing good will come from Jules chasing the rush of this sexual relationship, even if it is theoretically in support of a revenge plan he frequently sidelines, but with the amount of porn he sees fleshing out similar dynamics to those he’s experiencing, he gets swept up in the “forbidden” nature of it all. The sex scenes couldn’t be described as pornographic––unless you’re a prude––but both characters acquiesce to playing their parts within the fantasy, unspokenly committing to mimicking the same archetypes typically at home on PornHub. Both actors deliver career-best work primarily because of the multifaceted requirements of these sequences, all of which further complicate a revenge story that seems simplistic on paper. The film wouldn’t have the same power if robbed of their sexual dynamic, which is the latest rebuke to any audience member arguing that such scenes serve no narrative purpose.

The role-play isn’t restricted to the bedroom––or any of the various public places they find themselves in––which is where the film is at its most daring, aiming to rationalize Preston’s mental state to such a degree that you are asked to extend compassion to a man who committed a hate crime before the title card even appeared onscreen. This is the stretch where Femme‘s central dynamic has the most pronounced flip on its head, firmly placing both characters within a moral grey area that, in light of how they were both introduced, would seem unthinkable. This stretch between the second and third acts, where the concept of a gay man presenting himself as “straight-acting” gets weaponized, is where Femme is at its best and most provocative; the narrative culmination it builds towards feels disappointing when placed next to it, even if it is inevitable. Freeman and Ping may find the thrills in subverting revenge narrative tropes elsewhere, but they are ultimately caught within them by a climax that feels devoid of the slipperiness that preceded it. It’s an underwhelming resolution to a character drama whose greatest strength is the ever-evolving nature of the roles both men have assigned themselves, subtracting their complexity to sell a resolution that feels far neater than it should.

Femme is the feature-length adaptation of a short, yet it never suggests a thin idea stretched to 90 minutes. If anything I wish the film allowed us to bathe in its most morally murky moments longer; the suddenness with which it races to a disappointingly conventional resolution is the only misstep among a bold, remarkably assured debut feature.

Femme opens on Friday, March 22.

Grade: B

No more articles