‘The Substance’ Review: Demi Moore and Margaret Qualley Make Coralie Fargeat’s Sci-Fi Body Horror Double the Fun

Cannes 2024: The festival’s most audacious horror film is sure to send more squeamish audiences running for the exits

A person in a robe depicting a long snake/dragon-like creature on its back stands over a woman lying on the floor of a bathroom near a shower, her back toward the camera, crude stitches running all the way down her spine.
A still from "The Substance" (Courtesy Cannes)

Coralie Fargeat’s “The Substance” is a body horror film with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It smashes you over the head with its ideas and imagery, making even the fleeting moments of supposed beauty its characters are desperately chasing into something gloriously gruesome. It’s also great fun, pushing itself to greater heights and increasingly ludicrous lows at every turn as it riffs on the perils of youth and aging. It’s a lurid, loud and lewd film that comes at you.

The garishness of it all is Fargeat’s way of taking society’s often painfully narrow beauty standards and turning them all inside out. The filmmaker does so literally and figuratively, making it one of the most utterly ridiculous and unrestrained films to show at a festival this year. Few come even close.

While not as sensational as body horror films of festivals past, namely “Raw” and “Titane,” “The Substance” has all the right stuff on the inside. As we see everything come spilling out, it proves to be yet another stellar genre film from Fargeat after her 2017 feature debut, “Revenge.” The film may not have the same style, but it is a boldly stark work, ensuring you feel every punch in your gut all the same. Be warned: it won’t be easy to stomach for all. 

Premiering Sunday evening in competition at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, the film begins with an overhead shot of the construction and degradation of a star on what seems like the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It’s been made for Elizabeth Sparkle, played with both sufficient dramatic heft and deadpan humor by Demi Moore, who was once a star herself but has been increasingly cast aside as she’s aged. After she is cut from the exercise show that she hosts by the megalomaniacal television executive Harvey, played with a truly despicable and terrifying disposition by Dennis Quaid in rare form, an opportunity presents itself to her. It’s a product known as The Substance which, at its very basic, is an injection that allows you to create a younger version of yourself who will be more “beautiful” in the eyes of society. The temptation soon proves to be too much for Elizabeth. 

This injection works exactly as advertised, only with a lot more pain that we see captured in inventive detail, like eyeballs doubling in a socket as the younger version splits open the older original’s back, leaving her unconscious on her bathroom floor. This new version goes by Sue and is played by a madcap Margaret Qualley, in her second film at the festival following “Kinds of Kindness,” with a real sense of verve even as she teeters just on the edge of falling apart.  

While the doubling is incredible, there are strict rules both must follow together. Namely, they have to switch every week, with one going unconscious while the other moves freely in the world. So while Sue almost immediately finds immense success, taking over Elizabeth’s hosting job and turning the exercise program into a ratings smash hit by making it more erotic, this is something both don’t get to benefit from. Even as the shadowy group behind The Substance informs them they are one person, a struggle for this singular life starts to take bloody shape. 

While some of this plays out rather predictably at first, it all still works because of how in command Fargeat is as a director. A fair bit of the film is without much dialogue, establishing the fault lines that will create a schism between the two versions with focused visual storytelling. Just as was the case with ‘Revenge,’ Fargeat wastes little time in getting things in motion and isn’t afraid to throw us into the squishy body horror deep end as things begin to unravel. 

Neither Sue nor Elizabeth are fully content with the arrangement which results in the former starting to break the rules by staying conscious longer and longer. This creates disastrous consequences. You already feel this in your bones as Sue must repeatedly inject Elizabeth to remove what seems to be a dangerously high amount of spinal fluid to give her life, but seeing the older version start to decay before our eyes is what provides the film with the necessary urgency. While a bit repetitive here and there, it always finds a way to kick down a new door.

Though frequently confined to the duo’s luxurious apartment, the battle for this one life ensures it never feels too narrow in scope. Reflections on what it means to age as a woman in society are often expressed with blunt dialogue though you’re willing to forgive this because of just how committed Moore and Qualley are to the experience. Each gives body and soul to what can be often physically demanding scenes. They make the film into an often sly tragicomedy, leaning on both humor and horror to ensure that its audience begins to squirm. 

Just when you think it’s run out of ways to show the bodies of the two being more and more impacted, from limbs beginning to decay to a bulge from a meal the other ate, it will smash you right into the next escalation. Fargeat never runs out of fun ideas for how to torment her characters, having them extract a lump through a belly button, squish limbs into place after being out too long, and generally try to make the most of the devil’s bargain they have struck.  

This culminates in a spectacular and chaotic finale that feels like it could potentially set a record for the amount of blood spilled in a film premiering at Cannes. Faces are pointedly repeatedly smashed into unrelenting mirrors just as bodies are distorted by The Substance even further, leaving nowhere else to go but into more absurd and gory anarchy. This all goes on for quite a while, but the ratcheting up of the body horror ensures it never feels tired. The clever manner in which it all ties back to the beginning serves up an absolute showstopper of a closing punchline. It’s a classic “be careful what you wish for” film. You may find stardom, but nothing lasts forever. 

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