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#OscarsSoStraight: Academy honors queer films but omits queer talent

Mixed bag of nominees as heterosexual actors playing gay win nods

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Cate Blanchett is favored to win an Oscar for her performance in the acclaimed ‘Tár.’ (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

The race for Oscar — Hollywood’s favorite sport — officially began Tuesday morning, when past winner Riz Ahmed and “M3gan” actress Allison Williams appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” to announce the list of nominees for the 95th Academy Awards. As always, that list was mostly comprised of established favorites, boosted by the momentum gained from wins and nominations for other film awards, with a few inevitable snubs and surprises thrown into the mix just to keep things interesting.

From a movie-lover’s perspective, the Academy’s final ballot reflects a year that has yielded a better-than-average crop of films, even as post-pandemic box office numbers skewed away from the kind of “prestige” movies that usually win Oscars. With plenty of deserving front-runners among the nominees, cinema buffs will have plenty of worthy choices to root for when the Academy Awards presentation airs on March 12.

Looking at the nominations through a queer eye, on the other hand, there’s not much to get excited about. But let’s focus on the good news first.

Among the movies nominated for Best Picture, several include LGBTQ characters and storylines. In “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the popular indie sci-fi comedy that received the most nods (11) of any movie in the pack, the fate of the multiverse hinges on – among other things – a woman’s ability to acknowledge and affirm her daughter’s queer sexuality; the controversial but acclaimed “Tár” is built around Cate Blanchett’s consummate performance as an acclaimed lesbian symphony director accused of sexual misconduct, and features numerous queer characters among the supporting cast; “Women Talking,” Sarah Polley’s powerful drama about victims of sexual assault in a Mennonite colony, includes a transmasculine character (portrayed by nonbinary actor August Winter) in a small but crucial role. In addition, “Elvis” was helmed by queer director Baz Luhrmann, who snagged a nomination as one of the film’s producers; and “The Fabelmans” was co-written by out gay screenwriter Tony Kushner, who likewise gained a nod as producer as well as sharing a nomination for Best Original Screenplay with Steven Spielberg.

As for the acting categories, a handful of performers earned nominations for playing LGBTQ-identifying characters. Blanchett, in “Tár,” is seen as a shoo-in for Best Actress; similarly, first-time nominee Brendan Fraser, whose “comeback” performance as an obese gay man consumed by grief and regret after the death of his partner in “The Whale” gained almost universal praise despite controversies surrounding the movie itself, is a strong contender among a slate of other first-timers in the Best Actor race. Stephanie Hsu, who portrays the above-mentioned lesbian daughter in “Everything,” also became a first-time Oscar nominee, for Best Supporting Actress; lastly, though it might be a bit of a cheat, it’s worth mentioning that “Everything” also depicts – quite memorably – versions of the characters played by Best Actress nominee Michelle Yeoh and Best Supporting Actress nominee Jamie Lee Curtis as [SPOILER ALERT] a same-sex couple in an alternate universe.

Other notably queer-inclusive films in the overall Oscar lineup include: “Close,” directed by filmmaker Lukas Dhont, a Belgian coming-of age drama nominated for Best International Feature; “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” the comedy crime caper sequel that confirms the queerness of detective Benoit Blanc (played by Daniel Craig), earned writer-director Rian Johnson a nod for Best Adapted Screenplay; “Babylon,” Damien Chazelle’s ambitious ensemble drama about 1920s Hollywood, which was snubbed in the “major” categories but earned nominations for Justin Hurwitz’s original score and its costume and production designs; and incredibly enough, “Top Gun: Maverick,” which scored multiple nominations including Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay, makes the inclusion list through the involvement of queer ally Lady Gaga, who is co-nominated (with BloodPop) for writing Best Original Song contender “Hold My Hand.”

While the inclusiveness in some cases could be perhaps described as marginal, at best, and none of the nominated titles are predominantly queer focused, it’s still heartening to see a crop of widely varied films in which an LGBTQ presence is not only visible, but normalized, almost routine. That’s a far cry from 2006, when the high-profile nominations and wins for “Brokeback Mountain” provoked outrage and outcry among industry old-timers. Progress has clearly been made.

Unfortunately, while the Academy has clearly become more comfortable with movies that allow queer people to exist on the screen at all, it’s still prone to some of its old habits – and this year’s nominations underscore the importance of keeping up pressure on the Hollywood establishment to prevent backsliding. In recent years, LGBTQ-themed films and out queer performers have increasingly been part of the party on Oscar night, with movies like “Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Rocket Man” and more emerging as major contenders and, in some cases, even taking home the prize; but this year, the roster is frustratingly straight.

This is most telling in the acting categories, where – true to what has become a long-standing Oscar tradition, at this point – none of the nominees, including those playing LGBTQ characters, identify as queer. There’s no argument against the worthiness of Blanchett, Fraser, or Hsu, each of whom does superb work and deserves recognition for it; what is more pertinent is the omission of actual LGBTQ people from the roster, like Janelle Monáe of “Glass Onion” or Jeremy Pope of “The Inspection,” whose much-lauded 2022 performances put them high on the short list for Academy recognition.

The LGBTQ community is not the only one with reason to be disappointed. After two consecutive years of being won by women, the Best Director category is once again made up entirely of heterosexual men; female filmmaker Polley, despite the Best Picture nod for “Women Talking,” failed to make the cut – though she did pick up a writing nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Recognition for people of color also took a step backward. This is particularly notable in the acting categories, where only two Black performers – Angela Bassett (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”) and Brian Tyree Henry (“Causeway”), for Best Supporting Actress and Actor, respectively – received nominations. Among the year’s potential nominees were snubbed powerhouses like Viola Davis (“The Woman King”), Danielle Deadwyler (“Till”), Gabrielle Union (“The Inspection”), as well as the aforementioned Pope and Monaé, any of whom might have helped to even the balance.

Don’t get us wrong; there are plenty of reasons to be happy with this year’s Oscar contest, not the least of which is the element of surprise – though there are definite favorites, there are no clear winners in most of the categories. Returning to our focus on the positive, there’s a strong showing of Asian-American nominees in the mix, thanks to “Everything,” and it’s worth adding that, with queer-inclusive films scoring high in total nominations, some of them are sure to win – and that will give us ample reason to celebrate.

It won’t keep us, however, from expecting Oscar to do better next year. Until then, don’t be surprised if this stumble on the road to real LGBTQ equality in the movies spawns a new hashtag: #OscarsSoStraight.

The complete list of Oscar nominations is below:

Best picture

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “Avatar: The Way of Water”

– “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– “Elvis”

– “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

– “The Fabelmans”

– “Tár”

– “Top Gun: Maverick”

– “Triangle of Sadness”

– “Women Talking”

Best director

– Martin McDonagh, “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

– Steven Spielberg, “The Fabelmans”

– Todd Field, “Tár”

– Ruben Östlund, “Triangle of Sadness”

Best actor

– Austin Butler, “Elvis”

– Colin Farrell, “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– Brendan Fraser, “The Whale”

– Paul Mescal, “Aftersun”

– Bill Nighy, “Living”

Best actress

– Cate Blanchett, “Tár”

– Ana de Armas, “Blonde”

– Andrea Riseborough, “To Leslie”

– Michelle Williams, “The Fabelmans”

– Michelle Yeoh, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best supporting actor

– Brendan Gleeson, “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– Brian Tyree Henry, “Causeway”

– Judd Hirsch, “The Fabelmans”

– Barry Keoghan, “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– Ke Huy Quan, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best supporting actress

– Angela Bassett, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”
– Hong Chau, “The Whale”
– Kerry Condon, “The Banshees of Inisherin”
– Jamie Lee Curtis, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”
– Stephanie Hsu, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best original screenplay

– “The Banshees of Inisherin,” Martin McDonagh

– “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert

– “The Fabelmans,” Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg

– “Tár,” Todd Field

– “Triangle of Sadness,” Ruben Östlund

Best adapted screenplay

– “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell

– “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” Rian Johnson

– “Living,” Kazuo Ishiguro

– “Top Gun: Maverick,” Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, story by Peter Craig and Justin Marks

– “Women Talking,” Sarah Polley

Best cinematography

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths”

– “Elvis”

– “Empire of Light”

– “Tár”

Best international feature film

– “All Quiet on the Western Front” (Germany)

– “Argentina, 1985” (Argentina)

– “Close” (Belgium)

– “EO” (Poland)

– “The Quiet Girl” (Ireland)

Best documentary feature film

– “All That Breathes”

– “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”

– “Fire of Love”

– “A House Made of Splinters”

– “Navalny”

Best animated feature film

– “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”

– “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On”

– “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish”

– “The Sea Beast”

– “Turning Red”

Best live action short film

– “An Irish Goodbye”

– “Ivalu”

– “Le Pupille”

– “Night Ride”

– “The Red Suitcase”

Best documentary short film

– “The Elephant Whisperers”

– “Haulout”

– “How Do You Measure a Year?”

– “The Martha Mitchell Effect”

– “Stranger at the Gate”

Best animated short film

– “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse”

– “The Flying Sailor”

– “Ice Merchants”

– “My Year of Dicks”

– “An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It”

Best original score

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “Babylon”

– “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

– “The Fabelmans”

Best original song

– “Applause” from “Tell It like a Woman”

– “Hold My Hand” from “Top Gun: Maverick”

– “Lift Me Up” from “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”

– “Naatu Naatu” from “RRR”

– “This Is A Life” from “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best film editing

– “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– “Elvis”

– “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

– “Tár”

– “Top Gun: Maverick”

Best production design

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “Avatar: The Way of Water”

– “Babylon”

– “Elvis”

– “The Fabelmans”

Best costume design

– “Babylon”

– “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”

– “Elvis”

– “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

– “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris”

Best makeup and hairstyling

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “The Batman”

– “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”

– “Elvis”

– “The Whale”

Best sound

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “Avatar: The Way of Water”

– “The Batman”

– “Elvis”

– “Top Gun: Maverick”

Best visual effects

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “Avatar: The Way of Water”

– “The Batman”

– “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”

– “Top Gun: Maverick”

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Star turn makes excellent ‘Ripley’ a showcase for Andrew Scott

Reasserting the queerness of an author who boldly pushed boundaries

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Andrew Scott stars in ‘Ripley.’ (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

There’s something about an anti-hero that appeals to us all. Why else would so many of our greatest stories revolve around a character whose behavior goes against everything we’ve been raised to believe is right?

Actually, that question probably answers itself. For many of us, the things we are raised to accept about life in the human world often feel less acceptable once we’ve gone through a few years of adult experience, which tends to put us at odds with the so-called “norms” of conformity. Naturally, this can be frustrating from time to time – and while that might not be enough to make us go “rogue” without regard law or ethics, it’s certainly sufficient to fuel our guilty fantasies.

That, along with the literary skills of Patricia Highsmith, the queer novelist who created him, is why the character of Tom Ripley has been engrossing us in various forms for nearly 75 years. The eponymous anti-hero of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (originally published in 1955) went on to feature in three additional books by Highsmith, and was subsequently brought to life in multiple small-and-big-screen incarnations, perhaps most prominently by Matt Damon in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film adaptation. These versions managed to skirt the book’s obvious queer subtext, but queer audiences recognized it anyway. Now, thanks to creator, writer, and director Steve Zaillian, Highsmith’s starry-eyed sociopath has returned in an eight-episode series – which pares the title down to the short-but-evocative “Ripley” – that debuts on Netflix April 4, and portrays his adventures with an eye toward honoring Highsmith’s intent while delivering the kind of up-front queerness that the author could never have dreamed of accomplishing in her heyday.

Not that this “Ripley” is exactly “out and proud,” though the actor who plays him – Andrew Scott (“All of Us Strangers”) – certainly is. The acclaimed Irish thespian brings his own queerness to the table in illuminating a character whose survival depends on never calling attention to himself – and though the series moves the action ahead a few years to1960, it’s still a world where any hint of “deviance” is likely to draw suspicion. That’s the last thing Tom Ripley needs; he’s a con artist, the mid-20th-century equivalent of modern-day “phishing” scammers, grifting gullible marks from his squalid, one-room New York City apartment. He’s good at what he does, an anonymous figure hiding in a sea of strangers – but when a wealthy shipping magnate tracks him down with a request for help and the offer of an all-expenses-paid excursion to Italy, he sees it as an opportunity to change his life for the better.

That opportunity, as it turns out, involves a barely remembered college acquaintance named Dickie (Johnny Flynn), whose post-graduation trip to Europe has become a years-long vacation on the Mediterranean coast from which his father – Ripley’s surprise benefactor – would like him to return. Sent on a mission to convince his old schoolmate to go home, he is instead spellbound by the idyllic seaside setting and opulent lifestyle that surrounds him – and also by Dickie himself. He ingratiates himself into the young man’s life, winning his sympathies despite some initial awkwardness. Not so easily persuaded is Dickie’s girlfriend, Marge (Dakota Fanning), whose lingering distrust must be overcome if Ripley is to enact his new master plan to claim Dickie’s life of expatriate luxury as his own.

Thanks to its source’s relative familiarity, “Ripley” makes no effort to hide the fact that its anti-hero is a shady guy; we see from the start that he’s a liar and an opportunist. What Zaillian manages to do, unlike others who have adapted the novel, is move past a clinical focus on Ripley’s psychology to give us a less prosaic – and therefore more complex – interpretation of the character. Much of this comes from a script that echoes Highsmith’s hard-boiled style by framing the story (and its protagonist) in a shadowy, amoral universe, enhanced by the stylish black-and-white treatment delivered by Robert Elswit’s cinematography, which leans into both the paradigm-challenging Euro “art cinema” from the period of its setting and the gritty chiaroscuro contrasts of film noir, setting up an instinctual understanding that this narrative, like its visuals, is composed entirely in shades of gray.

In the show’s engrossing first episode, this is a particularly effective hook, style coupling with context to underscore the bleakness of Ripley’s daily routine in New York, which is no less soul-crushing, perhaps, than the more lawful ones into which most of us are locked. Though we see that he’s a predator, it’s hard not to relate to his struggle, and by the time we get to the next chapter and meet Dickie and Marge, we’ve already entered a mindset in which easy ethical judgments become unconvincing and shallow. Our sympathies are effectively split; we’re either on nobody’s side or on everyone’s, and maybe it’s a little bit of both.

Needless to say, perhaps, this tricky transference would not be possible without the presence of a consummate actor in the title role, and Scott fits the bill beyond expectation. Though at first he reads as a bit old for the character, that notion quickly disperses – indeed, his weathered features bespeak the effects of a hard-knock life, the kind that makes a person willing to do anything to break free. More crucially, the unmistakable authenticity of his inner life is communicated with exquisite precision, engaging our empathy even as we recoil from the Machiavellian logic that guides him, and the clear conflict between his not-so-hidden feelings for Dickie and the agenda to which he has committed is made all the more stark by the ring of queer truth that underpins the performance. It’s a tour-de-force turn by an actor whose skills become more breathtaking with each subsequent role.

Fanning, whose equally adept performance provides a powerful counterpoint to Scott’s, is a strong contender for our sympathies, by virtue as much of the intelligence she brings as the peril into which it will eventually put her, and Flynn’s Dickie wears the weight and damage of his upper class status like a chain he can never quite break, making us dread the seemingly inevitable fate that awaits him even as we subliminally sign on to Ripley’s endgame with a sense of guilty (but unapologetic) satisfaction. Also notable is nonbinary actor Eliot Summers (child of former Police frontman Sting), who brings another level of queer identity into the narrative as another old acquaintance of Dickie’s that throws an unwelcome wrench into the works of Ripley’s plan.

Based on its first two episodes, “Ripley” certainly lives up to the anticipation that naturally awaits any adaptation of a high-profile story, and reasserts the queerness of an author who boldly pushed boundaries as far as censors of her time would allow. That’s more than enough to warrant staying with it until the end – and, if audience numbers warrant a renewal, through additional installments that might chronicle the less well-known escapades spun in Highsmith’s sequels. What cinches the deal, though, is the masterful performance that takes centerstage, which represents yet another escalation – and well-deserved triumph – in the rise of the talented Mr. Scott.

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‘Love Lies Bleeding’ delivers retro lesbian thrills

A skillful blend of campy bold strokes and a spirit of rebellion

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Katy O’Brian and Kristen Stewart star in ‘Love Lies Bleeding.’ (Photo courtesy of A24)

This month’s movies have been shaded with an awful lot of “noir.”

Not only that, but a surprising number of these movies – more accurately described as “neo-noir” to distinguish them from the formative black-and-white classics in this murkiest of all genres – are also very queer. We’ve seen Ethan Coen’s Tarantino-esque darkly comic lesbian road trip “Drive-Away Dolls” and the UK drag queen revenge drama “Femme”; now, from sophomore director Rose Glass (“Saint Maud”) comes “Love Lies Bleeding,” which might be queerest of the bunch so far.

It might be the “noir”-est, too; though there are a lot of vagaries around the characteristics that are required for applying that label, one of the most essential qualities is surely a morally ambiguous story. And morality can’t get much more ambiguous than it is in this retro-nostalgic throwback tale set on the fringes of the Albuquerque underworld of 1989. That’s where Lou (Kristen Stewart) has been for her entire life, and where she continues to stay – working as the manager of a run-down gym – out of protective loyalty to her sister Beth (Jena Malone), despite a longtime estrangement from her father (Ed Harris) and a desire to distance herself from the shadowy family “business” that he runs. 

Reclusive and guarded, she mostly avoids social interaction – until an aspiring bodybuilder named Jackie (Katy O’Brian) hitchhikes into town on her way to a championship competition in Las Vegas and in need of a place to crash. There’s an instant spark between them, which quickly leads to flaming passion. Unfortunately, it also leads to an incident of explosive violence which puts both of them not only into the crosshairs of Lou’s ruthless and powerful dad, but those of the law as well.

There’s no need to say more than that in terms of synopsis; in fact, it would be unfair to the film, which unfolds with an exquisitely slow burn before igniting into a climactic powder keg as satisfying as it is gripping, because so much of the thrill comes from the feeling of uneasy expectation it delivers through its gradual revelation of details. Even without knowing more, however, it’s clear that there’s a lot going on in “Love Lies Bleeding” that doesn’t quite line up with the comforting ethics of a black-and-white worldview – and that, of course, is what gives it the kind of unpredictable edge that makes it both a tautly engrossing thriller and a deliciously subversive saga of queer and feminine empowerment.

This latter quality is something it shares with movies like “Bound” – the 1996 debut feature by the Wachowskis, which pushed mainstream acceptance by presenting its lesbian protagonists in a realistic manner and refusing to frame them in the then-usual trope of “queer victimhood” – and elevates to a refreshingly contemporary tone while still reveling in homage to the stylistic flourishes of their era. 

Indeed, Glass peppers her film with echoes from dozens from the past that so clearly provided inspiration in both its visuals and its themes; from the twisted duplicity of Clouzot’s “Les Diaboliques” to the chaotic irony of the Coens’ “Blood Simple,” from the slick-but-gritty nihilism of William Friedkin to the disquieting body horror of David Cronenberg and the transcendental surrealism of David Lynch, “Love Lies Bleeding” borrows liberally and unapologetically from an array of cinematic touchstones almost as exhaustive as the one employed by Greta Gerwig in “Barbie” – and, like Gerwig, manages to incorporate them all in a sort of “metasphere” that allows our recognition of them to enhance and inform her own piece. Far from coming off as derivative, the effect is something akin to a “mash-up” of iconic eighties and nineties films and genres that uses their easy familiarity to both pay open tribute and tickle our nostalgic fancy, even as they are deployed as the building blocks for something with a singular identity of its own.

If you think that all sounds a little campy, you’re not wrong; there’s a definite element of tongue-in-cheek self awareness that permeates it, and a deliberate will toward underscoring the grimness of its outward scenario with the sly satire of its subtext. That, after all, is something else it shares in common with many of the older films it draws upon, in which “coded” characters and plotlines often served as subtle lampoons of the absurdly conventional messaging being conveyed on the surface. Camp is one of the oldest weapons in the queer artist’s arsenal, and Glass wields it like a pro.

Yet while she might use it to undermine cliches and upend expectations, the director never lets it distract – for long, at any rate – from the deadly stakes of her story. With a tight, terse screenplay (penned by Glass alongside Weronika Tofilska) that patiently sets up the dominoes for us until we’re quivering in anticipation of their fall, “Bleeding” takes time to relish in the details – the quirks of its characters, the unspoken dynamics between them, the secrets they keep and the moments they choose to reveal them – while making sure every one of them serves to wind the tension tighter. The effort pays off in a series of escalating climaxes that we know are coming yet still manage to surprise, shock, and ultimately, thrill us.

Gorgeous cinematography from Ben Fordesman helps, as does a period-perfect Tangerine Dream-esque score by Clint Mansell, but in such a character-driven film as this one, it’s always the actors who are most crucial to selling the director’s vision. In this case, Stewart and O’Brian are the linchpins, delivering a pair of deeply realized performances and a sultry-yet-sweet chemistry that wins us over almost before it does their characters. Both shine, with Stewart’s growth as an actor continuing to stretch her beyond her “Twilight” years and O’Brian’s earthy femininity bringing a welcome – and provocative – layer of gender ambiguity to the mix.

Backing them up are fine supporting turns from Malone and Anna Baryshnikov, whose hypnotically oddball performance as a clingy admirer who complicates Lou’s newfound romance is a highlight – as is Dave Franco’s simultaneously hilarious and repellant performance in a role it’s best we let you discover for yourself. Finally, though, it’s veteran screen baddie Harris who dominates, filling us with the kind of irrepressible dread that the most memorable movie villains always inspire – all while sporting a set of over-the-top hair extensions that immediately (and intentionally, we’d like to think) call to mind Richard O’Brien’s Riff-Raff in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Because of its skillful blend of such campy bold strokes and a genuine spirit of righteous rebellion that makes even its most broadly ridiculous moments cut with both sides of their satirical blade, we find “Bleeding” to be a new addition to an ever-growing canon of “essential” queer movies – with the disclaimer that some of its “weirder” moments might leave some viewers a bit perplexed, and those with a low tolerance to “gratuitous” violence and uninhibited sex scenes will likely want to skip it.

If, on the other hand, those things are a “plus” when deciding what to watch, then this is the movie for you.

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Neo-noir ‘Femme’ offers sexy, intense revenge fantasy

A work of real and thrilling cinematic vision

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George MacKay and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett star in ‘Femme.’ (Photo courtesy of Utopia)

They say “revenge is sweet,” and it must be true. Why else would so many of our popular stories, dating all the way back to “Medea” and beyond, be focused on the idea of getting “even” with the people who have done us wrong?

It’s a concept with obvious appeal for anyone who has felt unjustly used by the world – or, more accurately, by the people in it – but that has particular resonance, perhaps, for modern queer audiences, long used to being relegated to the status of “victim” in the narratives we see on our screens. In “Femme” — the new UK indie thriller helmed by first-time feature directors Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping, now in limited theatrical release and expanding wider over the next two weeks — it provides the irresistible hook for a gripping tale of calculated vengeance in the face of anti-queer violence. Like the best of such stories, however, it’s as much a cautionary tale as it is a wish-fulfillment fantasy.

Set in London, it centers on Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), aka Aphrodite Banks, a popular drag performer in the city’s queer club scene who, after a performance one night, steps out in full costume to buy a pack of cigarettes and becomes the victim of a traumatic “gay bashing” incident at the hands of a young man goaded to violence by a thuggish gang of friends. Months later, though he’s recovered from his physical injuries, he is still deeply affected by the inner scars that linger. Robbed of the confidence that allowed him to perform, he’s withdrawn into a reclusive life, until concern from his friends and housemates prompts him to finally venture out into the world for a night of cruising at a gay sauna – where he encounters his bully doing the same thing. 

Unrecognizable and anonymously masculine out of his drag persona, Jules finds himself beginning a dangerous and duplicitous game in which he plans to “out” his former attacker – whose name, as he learns, is Preston (George MacKay) – in the most humiliating way possible. As his scheme begins to play out, however, he encounters an obstacle: in getting to know the closeted Preston, he is surprised to discover not only empathy for someone living their life in terrified camouflage, but a mutual attraction that develops despite the horrific history between them.

Framed as a self-described “neo-noir” story, a designation that implies a certain flavor of moral ambiguity as much as it does a tense and shadowy tale of intrigue or a psychologically complex tone, it’s a movie that relies heavily on style in order to sell its conceptual premise. Realistically, we might question the boldness that permits our protagonist to enact such a potentially hazardous scheme, but in the context of its genre trappings we are lulled into accepting it. And while most of us are likely “jaded” enough to question the possibility of tenderness between its two leading characters, the accepted conceits of the film noir form are enough to sell it to us – or at least allow us to grapple with it alongside Jules, whose righteously Machiavellian master plan is threatened by the feelings he “catches” in spite of himself.

That, of course, is part of the whole point. “Femme,” though it establishes itself by virtue of its very title as a testament to the struggle to “pass” for straight in a world that places a value judgment on perceived adherence to a strict norm for gender and sexuality, hinges on the idea that such things aren’t quite as clear-cut as we want to make them. Despite the black-and-white certainty we cling to when it comes to the subject of abusive or toxic relationships, there’s an emotional component that can only be ignored or dismissed at our peril, and even our most resolute intentions can be undermined by the shades of gray we discover in our hearts. 

Freeman and Ng – who also wrote the screenplay, adapting their own BAFTA-nominated short film from 2021 (starring Harris Dickinson and Paapa Essiedu) into a feature-length expansion – seem bent on challenging our snap judgments, on forcing us to sympathize with our oppressors by showing us the ways in which they, too, are prevented from living a fully authentic life by the expectations of their cultural environment. Even more challenging for many modern audiences, perhaps, may be the unavoidable observation that, in enacting his plan of revenge, Jules crosses the line between being a victim and being a victimizer – a fine point that may trigger uncomfortable implications in a social environment that has become marked by divisive moral constructs and hardline ethical posturing.

Before we scare you off with discussion of high-concept themes and “culture war” rhetoric, however, it’s crucial to bring up the elements that lift “Femme” above and beyond the level of so many such narrative films and makes it a somewhat unexpectedly potent piece of cinematic storytelling – and all of them have to do with the skill and intention behind it.

As to the former, the movie’s first-time directors manage a remarkable debut, steeping their film in moody, genre-appropriate visuals and murky morality. They pave a path beyond the easy assessments proscribed for us by conventional thinking, and force us to follow our sympathies into a disquieting confrontation between what we “know” as right and what we feel as true; at the same time, they push back against any natural sentimentality we might have about the situation, stressing the toxicity of the relationship in the middle of their film, the ironically-reversed insincerity of its dynamic – and, perhaps most importantly, the reality of the defining circumstances around it. While we might find ourselves longing for a happier resolution than the one we expect, the film makes no pretense that these two men might overcome the deep denial and traumatic associations – not to mention the calculated lack of honesty on the side of its de facto protagonist, to achieve some kind of “happy ending” between themselves. Nevertheless, we hope for it, in spite of ourselves.

That delicate dynamic works largely because of the movie’s lead actors. Both Stewart-Jarrett (“Candyman”) and MacKay (“Pride”, “1917”) deliver fully invested, utterly relatable performances, finding the emotional truth behind their interactions with as much palpable authenticity as they bring to the chemistry between them. They force us to abandon our preconceived ideas about each character by finding the human presence behind them, and it makes the story’s final outcome feel as heartbreaking as it does inevitable.

As for intention, “Femme” – which premiered at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival and went on to gather acclaim across the international film fest circuit – might be a little hard to take for the easily triggered, we won’t deny it. Still, it’s a work of real and thrilling cinematic vision that goes beyond easy morality to highlight the tragedy that comes from being forced to live behind a mask for the sake of societal acceptance. It’s also exciting, smart, and unexpectedly sexy – all of which make it a highly- recommended addition to your watchlist.

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