We last saw actor George MacKay as a man who thought he was inhuman in the bizarre film “Wolf.” Before that, he dodged bombs with impressive stuntman-like ability in the Oscar-winning “1917.” His filmography is nothing if not a list of challenges, both physically and mentally. One of his latest, “Femme,” allows the 32-year-old actor to portray something new: a violent and disturbed ex-con. Adapted from their short film, filmmakers Freeman and Ping describe themselves as “queer creators breaking into a straight space.” On the surface, “Femme” appears to be a basic revenge thriller. However, the plot is far more psychologically complex, dealing with gender identity, sexual repression, and so much more. It breaks new ground in several places and grips you in knotted suspense. 

           Following his wild drag performance as Aphrodite, Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), still in character, walks from the nightclub down the block for a pack of smokes. What he encounters at the local convenience store changes his life. The hate crime leaves Jules on the sidewalk, barely able to move. Deflated, Jules loses his desire to perform or be around people and shuts himself off from the world. “You are letting them win,” his friends say repeatedly. While most attend the local bathhouses for rendezvous, Jules goes there to feel safe, where he can hide in safe shadows of his kind. The energy he lost on the sidewalk that night returns when he spots his attacker one evening at the bathhouse. Jules initiates a dangerous game with this man, assuming an entirely new character and plotting his revenge. 

Receiving one of the biggest standing ovations at the Berlinale Film Festival in 2023, “Femme” is that rare film that finds uncharted territory in the suspense genre. In some ways, the plot is a modern twist on Stockholm Syndrome. Stewart-Jarrett (“Candyman,” “Misfits”)and MacKay play Russian matryoshka doll-type characters, continually revealing different parts of themselves as the story progresses. MacKay’s character, Preston, wearing fine clothes, neck tattoos, and a stiff upper lip, is a bad-tempered sadist in public but something completely different when no one is watching. His friend describes him as a pit bull dropped on his head too many times. Similarly, Jules is usually outgoing, loud, colorful, and full of life but becomes quiet, secretive, and docile. 

“Femme” is less of a cat-and-mouse game than a chess game. Each character moves ever so slightly to test the others’ boundaries. This perilous behavior takes one surprising turn after the other, and the only predictable aspect is that no matter how this ends, it won’t end well. Like a good film, it asks more questions than it cares to answer. The two performances showcase uninhibited actors exploring darker themes. In vulnerable moments, expressions and unspoken words offer more profound character development than in the script. 

Final Thought

A complex revenge thriller with two superb performances and sustained suspense. 


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