Paul Verhoeven’s Elle meets the Safdie Brothers’s Good Time in this revenge tale pushing the boundaries of cinematic gender stereotypes.
Misfits breakout Stewart-Jarrett, whose more recent credits include Candyman and Mope, plays successful drag queen Jules, whose life and career are destroyed by a violent homophobic attack.
When his path crosses that of lead perpetrator Preston (MacKay) in a gay sauna, the outwardly macho young man does not recognize his victim without his wig and make-up, allowing Jules to infiltrate his life and seek revenge.
Femme marks the debut feature of screenwriter Freeman (Industry, This Is Going To Hurt and The Power) and theatre director Ping, who have described themselves in the past as “queer creators breaking into a straight space.”
The production began life on the sofa of the pair’s house-share some years ago as they played videogames and watched thrillers late at night.
“It sprung out of our love and enjoyment of high-octane, neo-noir thrillers. They’re our reference, films by the likes of Nicolas Winding Refn, the Safdie Brothers, or even old school stuff like Martin Scorsese movies,” explains Freeman.
“But however much we love those movies, we realized that we don’t exist in these worlds. They’re so hyper-masculine and revel in that kind of hyper-masculinity. There are very rarely queer characters in these films. And when there are, they’re often funny, with some kind of quirk.”
Ping cites the example of Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod character in Luc Besson’s 1997 cult hit The Fifth Element.
“It’s a very queer character that adds texture and comic relief. That is how queer people have existed for the longest time in thrillers, like a flavour, as opposed to the agent pushing the action forward,” he says.
The idea of making Jules’s character a drag queen was originally introduced as a plot device so that he would be unrecognizable to his former attacker but the concept of drag became intermeshed with the storyline and characterisation.
“All the characters are wearing drag not just Jules who wears a very literal form of drag at the beginning. Preston is also wearing it, all his friends are wearing it, as they pretend to be someone, something they’re not,” says Freeman.
“Jules’s revenge on Preston is trying to strip that drag away from him, in the same way as the drag is literally removed from his body at the beginning of the film.”
Ping says the drag theme adds another layer to the film: “It enabled us to tell a bigger, deeper story about identity and people’s place in the world and in society.”
The story oscillates between the backdrop of London’s LGBTQ+ scene and the city’s wider nightlife world, with a brooding score by Adam Janota Bzowski taking inspiration from the soundtrack to Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible.
“He has done an amazing number, creating a sound that is London, that is inside Jules’s head, that is a thriller, that is subjective, that is dark, that is sexy,” says Ping.
The feature follows the pair’s s BAFTA-nominated and BIFA-winning short of the same name, starring Paapa Essiedu and Harris Dickinson, which they made as a proof of concept for the long-planned feature.
The filmmakers credit producer Sam Ritzenberg and Myles Payne, founder of London-based Agile Films with helping them get the original idea off the ground by coming on board the short.
“We’d been talking about me purely writing something for a while. We pitched this idea. They thought it was exciting and took a gamble,” says Freeman. “It’s not easy to find the money for a short. None of this would exist without them taking a chance on us. We owe them a lot.”
The BIFA success and BAFTA nomination helped reel in the backing for the feature of BBC films and Sebastien Raybauld’s Anton Corp which is also handling international sales.
The directors decided to recast the roles for the feature, signing Stewart-Jarrett and MacKay.
“We wanted to distance the film from the short. There were new characters and a new story,” says Freeman.
“We’ve stayed close to Paapa, we really love him and his work,” he adds. “Hopefully, we’ll get to make more films, and he will come back in and be involved. So, there wasn’t a whole lot of drama to the decision. I think we wanted the film to be a fresh start.”
The directors will not be drawn on whether the sexual identity of the actors was important to them in the casting of the film.
“We’re proud to talk about the fact we employed our cast and crew from across the spectrum of sexuality, anyone seeing our film will know it is resolutely ‘queer’. However, we do feel quite strongly that it isn’t our place to comment on the sexuality of any individual member of our team,” they say.
Ping says Stewart-Jarrett, who grew up in South London brought special understanding to the role of Jules as the character outwardly adopts the look and brutish hyper-masculine mannerisms of Preston and his macho friends to fit in.
“He has experience of this kind of behaviour and brought it to the character as he assumes his ‘masculine drag’,” he explains.
Freeman acknowledges that Munich: The Edge Of War and 1917 star MacKay was less of an obvious choice for Preston.
“Every time you watch him, he’s so different, but he’s not necessarily the first person most people would think of for this role,” says Freeman.
“We got the script to his agent, and he really responded to it. We had a drink, and he had a lot of passion for it and that was that. He was really, really involved from the get-go which was lovely as it’s our first low-budget film.”
Ping emphasizes how the character of Preston is utterly at odds with that of MacKay in real life.
“It always surprises me how unlike George he is in the film. In real life, he’s sweet, so friendly and such a decent guy. He was unrecognizable from his usual stuff but he also brings an essential sweetness to Preston, which deepens the character.”
The film keeps spectators guessing whether it will be a tale of redemption or revenge until the end. PIng says this was one of their aims.
“What we really wanted is for people to root for them to be together, but at the same time feel really uneasy about rooting for them to be together,” says Ping. “It’s both a thriller-thriller and a psychological thriller, but also an emotional thriller, where you want to slam the brakes at the same time as you want to slam the gas.”