Nathan Stewart-Jarrett Uses Sex as a Weapon in Thriller

Feb 22, 2023

Home Movie Reviews ‘Femme’ Review: Nathan Stewart-Jarrett Uses Sex as a Weapon in Tense Queer Revenge Thriller | Berlinale 2023

‘Femme’ is a gripping revenge tale that refuses to give easy answers to complex issues of gender, sexuality, and toxic masculinity.

After getting a BAFTA nomination for their 2021 short Femme, co-directors Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping are back to extend their queer thriller into a full feature. It can be dangerous to take a successful story and just stretch it, but the duo, fortunately, escapes the pitfalls of shorts-turned-features by allowing the movie Femme to stand on its own. The result is a gripping revenge tale that refuses to give easy answers to complex issues of gender, sexuality, and toxic masculinity.

Femme stars Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Jules, a proud gay man who metamorphoses into a drag queen named Aphrodite Banks when performing in queer clubs.

While Jules fears homophobic attacks when he walks alone in dark streets, Aphrodite is fierce and is always ready to stand up for herself. Unfortunately, Aphrodite also puts a bigger target on Jules’ back. One evening, after crossing paths with a hot-headed drug dealer, Jules is violently beaten down and stripped of his drag clothes. The attack does more than give Jules scars, as the public humiliation drains Aphrodite of its symbolic strength, leaving the man alone and afraid in the streets of London.

Three months later, still suffering from the trauma of his attack, Jules crosses the man who beat him up in a gay sauna. Drawn like a moth to the flame, Jules gets closer to the man, Preston (George MacKay), plotting revenge. And after Preston fails to recognize Jules separated from his Aphrodite persona, the young man decides to seduce his aggressor, film their sexual relations, and expose him on the web. Just like he was stripped from Aphrodite, Jules wants to take away the thug mask Preston wears in public, showing the whole world the homophobe is just a closeted gay man who hates himself. Femme only takes a few minutes to establish its wild premise. And by the time it does, both Jules and Preston are involved in a dangerous game of cat and mouse where sex is a weapon of dominance and obedience.

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What makes Femme so enthralling is that the movie dares to give both Jules and Preston the spotlight. By doing so, the thriller asks the audience to do the impossible and try to understand a criminal we learn to hate early on. Simultaneously, by refusing to leave Preston in the perpetrator position, Femme also allows Jules to escape the victim label. The main characters of Femme are more than one-dimensional representations of the part they play in society. They are complex human beings, filled with contradictions and trying to get by despite past traumas.

By treating both Jules and Preston as layered characters, Femme can explore many crucial topics revolving around sexuality. There’s, of course, a debate about repressed desires. But the movie perfectly explores the weight of social pressure, how men socialize through aggression, how gay men need to learn to act straight to survive specific social encounters, and even how sex is often more about power than pleasure. In fact, Femme underlines how power can become pleasure.

Femme is also concerned about the role performance play in our lives, comparing both Jules’ need to become Aphrodite to feel free to Preston’s insistence on acting like a thug to hide his own insecurities. Of course, it’s not so simple to forgive and forget when it comes to Preston’s homophobia, and luckily Femme never diminishes Jules’ suffering. But it’s also vital to understand why hostile external forces can mold someone until they find it normal to oppress others. And while following the treacherous relationship of Jules and Preston, Femme exposes truths about human relationships that will make many viewers uncomfortable. Still, everything is shown through a queer gaze, which only makes the movie more refreshing.

Femme is a great addition to any list of thrillers, as it uses a simple concept to surprise the audience at each twist and turn of the story without losing sight of what makes its cast human and relatable. Of course, this is only possible because Stewart-Jarrett and MacKay are on the top of their game, delivering hypnotic performances overflowing with sensibility. Femme is not always an easy watch due to its heavy themes. Still, with a tight 90-minute run packed with intricate characters, it’s a thriller you don’t want to miss.

Rating: A-

Femme had its world premiere at 2023’s Berlin Film Festival.

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