Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) applies talcum powder to his legs, shimmying them into a pair of vinyl boots. When he strides on stage as drag queen Aphrodite, he’s met with thunderous applause; later, buying cigarettes at an off-licence, he’s greeted with violence. His assailant, Preston (George MacKay), decorated with a scowl and a threatening neck tattoo, had been checking him out earlier that night.
In the weeks after the attack, a shaken Jules spots Preston out cruising in a gay sauna, internalised homophobia practically leaching out of his pores. Jules follows him into the locker room and makes a decision to pursue him, galvanised by a slippery mix of desire and vengeance. But the closeted Preston’s response is surprising.
The debut feature from writer-directors Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping is a contemporary take on the erotic thriller, mostly playing out at night, in dimly lit car parks and at after-hours parties. The harsh neons of those spaces intimate threat lurking in plain sight, but the soft glow of a candlelit dinner is, in the end, more exposing. Behind closed doors, and later over wine and Chateaubriand steak, Preston’s macho act turns out to be a kind of performance, not all that different from the various personas inhabited by Jules.
MacKay ensures the vulnerable, tortured aspect of his character shines through Preston’s balled fists and tensed jaw, though occasionally at the expense of the character’s toxic, tough-guy credibility. Stewart-Jarrett’s performance is more seamless, modulating subtly between the various guises that Jules dons in order to seduce before the kill. (In a fun coincidence, or else a clever bit of costuming, at one point he wears a hoodie in the same shade of yellow as the jumpsuit worn in Kill Bill by Uma Thurman, another avenging angel.) His is the more challenging role, requiring the actor to layer in conflicting feelings of dread, disgust and arousal as Jules’s intelligence works to assess danger in real time.
The film’s title is a seemingly on-the-nose reference to the protagonist’s feminine qualities. But Freeman and Ping take a playful approach to gender and genre, twisting the tropes of film noir to explore the unpredictable, shifting power dynamic between its two leading men. In this sense, Jules is less the film’s femme than its femme fatale.
► Femme is in UK cinemas from 1 December.