Wednesday, March 20, 2024

I Met Her in a Club Down in Old Soho: Drag-Revenge Thriller Femme with George MacKay

(Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping, UK, 99 minutes) 

A new twist on the rape-revenge thriller, the victim-turned-vigilante of Femme isn't a woman, but rather a cisgender male drag performer. Rather than sexual assault, a violent attack--a gay bash, as he terms it--spurs him to take revenge on his attacker.
Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, who played drag performer Belize in the 2017 revival of Angels in America) is part of London's drag community. When he's outfitted as his alter ego, Aphrodite Banks, he looks a little like Cardi B with his long braids, short skirt, and towering heels. His drag family is a supportive bunch. The outside world may have its racists and homophobes, but inside the Phallacy, everyone is welcome. Outside the club, he becomes wary and watchful, knowing that he could be a target.
In a convenience store after a performance, still in drag, Jules finds himself eyed by some hoods, including Preston (a tattooed George MacKay), who doesn't like what he sees--or maybe he likes it too much. He insults Jules-as-Aphrodite, he insults him back, and that might be the end of that, except Jules calls him a "faggot," since he caught him checking him out earlier that evening. What happens next is not a surprise, it sets the film in motion, but if you're anything like me, you'll want to look away (fortunately, this sequence is mercifully short). Though he tries to fight back, they outnumber Jules. The men beat him up, tear off his clothes, capture it all on video, and walk away laughing into the night, leaving him alone and shivering. Instead of going home, he returns to the club where he gets the help he needs. 
Three months later, Jules is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and has stopped performing, so I would imagine that his roommate and best friend, Toby (John McCrea), is paying their bills. Initially supportive, Toby has grown exasperated by Jules's antisocial demeanor, but what he doesn't know is that his friend isn't mired in depression so much as thoughts of revenge. Instead of using dialogue to get this idea across, co-directors Freeman and Ng, who expanded their feature from a 2021 short with Harris Dickinson and  Paapa Essiedu, show him obsessively playing a violent video game. 
At a gay sauna, while in his male persona, Jules spots Preston, who doesn't recognize him. Though Preston presents himself as aggressively straight, he has a knack for circling spaces where gay men tend to congregate, and then loses his shit if anyone hits on him or questions his heterosexuality.
Instead of avoiding Preston, Jules watches him and expresses interest with his eyes. Preston invites him into his car, and he gets in. Earlier on, before the attack, he had mentioned to Toby that he found the white guy cute, so it isn't exactly a one-way street. They head to his flat, where Preston warns him to keep his distance. He doesn't want anyone to see that he has a somewhat feminine-looking guest, though a motel room would make more sense (in a different kind of film, Preston might also be racist, except his crew includes Oz, a biracial member, and race never comes up).  

Preston shuts his bedroom door, and orders Jules to take off his clothes and not to say a word. He does as he is told. They begin to fuck. Then voices emerge from Preston's flat as his friends tumble into it, either because they have a key or because he left the door unlocked. He orders Jules to stay put, but he opens the closet door instead, spots the yellow hoodie Preston was wearing the night of the attack, puts it on, removes his pearl earring, and steps out to meet the men who attacked him. It's the beginning of Jules's drag as a non-femme, though I wouldn't describe him as butch. Preston introduces him as a prison friend, at which point, Jules quickly takes his leave. In private, they plan to meet again. "Dress normal," Preston instructs in a text. "Not faggy."
When he gets home, Jules looks into websites in which gay men expose closeted sex partners by filming them in the act. Once again, he doesn't say a word, but it's clear what he's thinking. By this point, I was wondering if all this silence was really such a great idea. Then again, it's possible the filmmakers were riffing on revenge classics like Sergio Corbucci's The Great Silence or Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 in which the vigilante protagonists, male and female respectively, keep mum. What might be seen as weakness, passivity, or vulnerability means to register as a quiet, stealth strength. 
Jules starts making plans for revenge, but it isn't well thought out. As he considers his options, he plays Preston's secret boyfriend. For their first semi-public outing, they dine at a nice restaurant, where Preston fails to clock that his date doesn't say much. He wants to do and say everything, to be in charge. It doesn't change the fact that he's gay, or that he's a white man who treats his Black companion the way unenlightened men treat women, i.e. as people who need to be told how to dress and what to eat. If the screenplay doesn't reference race, that doesn't mean it doesn't factor into the scenario. The world Jules inhabits is largely white, but he isn't.  

Jules lets Preston think what he wants. If he's plotting revenge, he's also trying to understand the guy. What makes him tick? Does he have a good side? Is he redeemable? After all, he traffics in knockoff designer goods, and pays for everything in cash. So, he isn't just a self-hating gay man, he's a crook, a thief, a criminal. 
If the sex, which isn't explicit, plays like rape, that's because it's aggressive and because we know Jules doesn't want it--initially--though he gives his consent. Preston seems to think Jules wants to be treated in a demeaning manner. After all, some men--some women--do. Preston is demeaning to him in non-sexual ways, too, but he puts up with it while biding his time. He doesn't pretend that he loves it, but nor does he suggest otherwise. If anything, the screenplay is just ambiguous enough to suggest that Jules can want to take his revenge and enjoy some rough sex along the way.  
By this point, I was reminded of In the Cut. If Jane Campion gave her a film a happier ending than the one that concludes Susanna Moore's novel, it's still an uncompromising portrait of a seemingly intelligent woman (Meg Ryan) who puts herself--and her sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh)--in harm's way to expose a serial killer of women. Jules's risk-taking is just as dangerous and foolhardy, because no one knows what he's doing. He's on his own. 
When Preston's friends take a shine to Jules, who has adopted a more traditionally masculine look, the situation becomes more complicated. Preston doesn't want to be outed and Jules doesn't want another beat down, but if they're too precious about their relationship, Preston's mates might start to figure out that there's something more than friendship at play. 
Jules takes advantage of a night on the town with the crew to learn more about Preston whom Oz (Love/Hate's Aaron Heffernan) describes as a man who "goes full-on psycho" when he's upset, like "a pit bull that's been dropped on his head too many times." The screenplay never explains this side of his character, and I'm not sure that it matters, though his accent indicates a rough-hewn background. If Jules has no back story either, he comes across as more refined and possibly better educated. 
Acceptance by Preston's friends through gaming, dancing, and general camaraderie provides him with another weapon to wield against the guy, since he's no longer a complete outsider. This happens pretty quickly, probably too quickly, but he starts to treat Preston the way Preston has been treating him, possibly sensing that-- macho bluster aside--he also longs to be dominated, particularly by someone he believes he can trust.
After their night out with the crew, Preston crashes at Jules's place, and spends the next morning with his crew, which only adds to the confusion, since Preston must surely suspect that Toby, a fellow drag performer, is gay, though he doesn't say anything (Asha Reid plays their female roommate, Alicia).   
Just as the film begins with a drag performance, it ends with one, too, though there is otherwise very little drag in the film. I won't say more about the ending than that, because everything has been leading up to it, but it wasn't quite what I was expecting. Revenge films, rape-revenge or otherwise, tend to end in a specific way, usually with the protagonist vanquishing their foe and sometimes several collaborators along the way. That doesn't happen here, which will surely disappoint anyone expecting the grindhouse fare hinted by the premise. On the contrary, the filmmakers took their cues from film noir, the erotic thriller, and yes, RuPaul's Drag Race

By the end, we don't know for sure whether Jules has developed feelings for Preston, though we know for sure that Preston has developed feelings for Jules. In the production notes, Freeman and Ng, both gay, have described Femme as a film about drag since both men are wearing a kind of masculine drag. (Though MacKay, who played a gay protagonist in Pride, identifies as straight, Stewart-Jarrett, who first came to my attention by way of the BBC's Misfits, falls into the Tim Curry category: very gay-friendly, but he has always kept his private life to himself.)

Appearances aside, it's also a film about acting, which means that it has a lot in common with the undercover cop or spy film. As such, I wish the actors were more evenly-matched. They're both very good, but MacKay has the edge in that Preston is more dynamic and charismatic than Jules, even though he's clearly the bad guy. Some may take Jules's newfound assertiveness to mean that he has become more masculine, except the film is titled Femme, so it's possible that his strength comes more from Aphrodite, his fierce female persona, than Jules, his tame male persona--would that we all have access to that kind of power when we need it most.  

Femme opens at IFC Center in New York on Mar 22, in Los Angeles and Chicago on Mar 29, and in Seattle at AMC 10 on Apr 4. It expands nationwide on Apr 5. Images from the IMDb (George MacKay and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, together and separately), AnOther (MacKay and Aaron Heffernan), and MUBI (Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo in In the Cut). 

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