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British thriller 'Femme' explores revenge after a homophobic attack

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A British thriller from a pair of first time filmmakers is steeped in suspense about what will happen after an act of violence. Although its title is "Femme," critic Bob Mondello says the film is all about masculinity and power.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Jules is backstage with friends at an east London club, preparing for his performance when we meet him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FEMME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Break a leg.

NATHAN STEWART-JARRETT: (As Jules) Oh, my God. I love that phrase when I'm wearing heels.

MONDELLO: As he hits the stage in a dramatic blue gown, the camera circles him, taking in his transformation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FEMME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Aphrodite Banks.

MONDELLO: Shoulders square, a fierce glamazon who's all swagger and confidence, make-up, long braids, nails a sort of armor. But outside the club, their effect is different, not so much armour as a target for bigots. So now a mini-skirted Jules is skittish in a convenience store when laddish louts enter.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FEMME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Hey. Hey. It's a bloke.

MONDELLO: One with neck tattoos who looked at him earlier outside the club now spits a slur.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FEMME")

GEORGE MACKAY: (As Preston) [Expletive].

MONDELLO: And some speck of Aphrodite in Jules taunts back.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FEMME")

STEWART-JARRETT: (As Jules) Takes one to know one, innit (ph)?

MACKAY: (As Preston) What?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Hey. What he say?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) He's a big man in his high heels.

MACKAY: (As Preston) Hey. Turn around and say that. Wait. Turn around.

MONDELLO: So Jules does.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FEMME")

MACKAY: (As Preston) Caught you checking me out earlier.

MONDELLO: Jules struts away but, in heels, not quickly enough. Neck tattoo guy catches him outside and beats him savagely, leaving Jules naked, bloody, traumatized to the point that, months later, he is barely leaving his apartment. But when one of his friends says...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FEMME")

JOHN MCCREA: (As Toby) You're letting them win.

MONDELLO: ...He realizes there's some truth to that and heads out to what he thinks is a safe space, a gay sauna. And who's there? Tattoo guy, jumpy, nervous and clearly not recognizing Jules without wig and makeup. When the guy suggests a hookup...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FEMME")

MACKAY: (As Preston) Come on, then (ph).

MONDELLO: ...Jules follows him outside and to his car.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FEMME")

MACKAY: (As Preston) You got a free place?

STEWART-JARRETT: (As Jules) No.

MONDELLO: And a dangerous game begins. Jules hatches a plan to even the score with his closeted tormentor, whose name, he learns, is Preston and who's clearly doing a kind of drag himself, hyper-masculine with those tattoos and hot temper. But as trysts with rough sex give way to dinner dates...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FEMME")

MACKAY: (As Preston) Can we get a wine list?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Yeah.

MACKAY: (As Preston) You hungry, yeah?

STEWART-JARRETT: (As Jules) Yeah.

MACKAY: (As Preston) Can we get a Chateaubriand?

MONDELLO: ...The dynamic between them becomes harder to parse.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FEMME")

STEWART-JARRETT: (As Jules) I'm just trying to work out what the vibe is here.

MACKAY: (As Preston) What do you mean?

STEWART-JARRETT: (As Jules) I'm not imagining double dates with your friends anytime soon.

MACKAY: (As Preston) You're funny.

STEWART-JARRETT: (As Jules) You keep this out of your life, completely separate.

MACKAY: (As Preston) I'm a private person.

MONDELLO: What is Jules up to here? Nathan Stewart-Jarett is playing him as at once vulnerable and determined. So is he stringing George MacKay's Preston along for revenge or maybe softening towards his weirdly charismatic attackers Stockholm syndrome-style? The answers the filmmakers come up with are more complex than you might expect.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FEMME")

STEWART-JARRETT: (As Jules) You got a girlfriend?

MACKAY: (As Preston) Would you like it if I did?

MONDELLO: Writer-directors Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping aren't interested in queer victimhood in "Femme." They and the actors who give life to these vibratingly conflicted characters are exploring rage, how some men socialize through aggression and how sex can be every bit as much about power as about pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FEMME")

MACKAY: (As Preston) Come on, then.

MONDELLO: "Femme" evolves over its tense 99 minutes from a smartly acted revenge thriller to something just as nerve-wracking and more obviously true to life - a confrontation between two men who, responding to social pressures in very different ways, are performing who they are. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADAM JANOTA BZOWSKI'S "SAUNA REPRISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.