‘The Substance’ Review: Demi Moore And Margaret Qualley Pair Up For The Year’s Smartest, Goriest Horror Breakout – Cannes Film Festival

Have you ever dreamed about being a better version of yourself? With her second film, Coralie Fargeat not only addresses this question but takes aim at ageism and sexism in the entertainment industry with a riotous, dreamlike horror-thriller that ends in a delirious symphony of blood, guts and otherwise undefinable viscera. Imagine David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive fused in a telepod with David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, add the unbelievably dynamic pairing of Demi Moore and Margaret Qualley, process it through the ultra-vivid color palette that is Fargeat’s hyper-saturated imagination, sprinkle a bit of J.G. Ballard on top, and you have the perfect breakout genre movie of the year.

If you had “Demi Moore to make a hagsploitation body horror splatter movie” on your 2024 bingo card, you stand to make a fortune, but, come on, it’s not very likely; there’s been nothing in her filmography so far — not even 2019’s edgy black comedy Corporate Animals — to suggest that she would ever have a film like The Substance inside her. But here we are, and not only does she give the furthest-out performance this side of Nicolas Cage — who raised the stakes in Cannes this year by eating a rat in The Surfer — she is all in for the humor and clearly totally in sync with Fargeat’s not-really-very-subtle-at-all feminist agenda.

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Moore plays Elisabeth Sparkle, a big movie star in the ’80s who now runs a fitness show called Sparkle Your Life on morning television. Like Jane Fonda, she encourages viewers to feel the burn, ending her show with a wink and a catchphrase (“Take care of yourself!”). What she doesn’t know is that the show’s producer (Dennis Quaid), a monstrous vulgarian who may or may not be coincidentally called Harvey, wants Elisabeth out, chiefly for the crime of being over 50. Elisabeth finds this out the hard way when she overhears him calling his assistant to find a replacement. “I want her young, I want her hot, and I want her NOW!” he bawls.

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Driving home, Elisabeth is so dejected and distracted that she crashes her car. The doctor at A&E finds nothing broken, but his assistant — a handsome young man with piercing blue eyes — pays her special attention, running his fingers down her spine and telling her that she would make “a good candidate.” But for what? Later that day, she finds a flash drive in her coat pocket, and a hand-written note saying, “It changed my life.”

“It,” according to the promo material, is The Substance, which, with tubes and syringes and whatnot, will turn out to be quite a process. But the gist of it, presaged at the beginning of the film with an egg yolk, is that The Substance will create “a new you.” The only catch — which in the spirit of cautionary tales seems so simple and yet will prove so hard to adhere to — is that you must share your time: “One week for you. One week for the new you. Seven days each.”

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Elisabeth throws the flash drive in the trash, but after seeing her old job advertised in the newspaper, she pulls it out and calls the number. She gets an address, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and a key pass emblazoned with the number 503. Although no money ever seems to change hands, Elisabeth is up and running when she takes possession of a cardboard box filled with liquids and arcane medical ephemera, emblazoned with words like “Activate,” “Stabilize” and “Switch.” At home, she strips off and jacks up a neon-yellow serum.

Which is where the fun starts.

After a hallucinogenic homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Elisabeth gives birth to Sue (Qualley), a pretty young woman who, at first sight, seems a little too wholesome to fill Elisabeth’s shoes. But after an audition for Harvey’s team, Sue gets the job and starts breaking ratings records with a highly sexualized new show called Pump It Up. She starts getting high on fame and breaks the seven-day rule of The Substance, which, physically, takes its toll on Elisabeth. Soon, the two women are embroiled in a battle of wits that can only end in disaster.

And it does.

Fargeat’s first film, Revenge, was a blood-spattered rape-payback movie that, despite its much more down-to-earth setting, required a similar suspension of disbelief. Admirers of that film will easily see her signature tones here; after red, which will eventually spray-paint the entire screen, orange is her go-to color, with a bit of sky-blue here and there. Once again, the music confronts you like a rabid sniffer dog, and there is a fascination for naked human skin that Moore and Qualley quite selflessly oblige, in ways that are never gratuitous.

It’s interesting to notice that, at 61, Moore is actually older that both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were when they made Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the film that kickstarted the hagsploitation cycle of horror films in 1962 and which casts a long shadow over The Substance, especially when tensions between Elisabeth and Sue boil over. Needless to say, Moore still looks amazing, but Fargeat’s film is not about that, it’s about the way Elisabeth allows the male gaze to objectify and belittle her, only to find that the supposedly “better” version of herself has the same insecurities and more of ’em, all dialed up to 11.

It’s a little overlong at 140 minutes, but it does quite enjoyably prolong the agony as one begins to wonder what the human cost of all this will eventually turn out to be. Fargeat rewards your patience with a finale that channels the pathos of Lynch’s Elephant Man and the fleshy absurdity of Brian Yuzna’s 1989 squishy cult classic Society. Squeamish viewers should steer clear, but, for Cannes audiences at least, The Substance ends with the most spectacular demise since Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote ate that final, fatal wafer-thin mint in 1983.

Title: The Substance
Festival: Cannes (Competition)
Director-screenwriter: Coralie Fargeat
Cast: Demi Moore, Margaret Qualley, Dennis Quaid
Sales agent: Cinetic Media
Running time: 2 hr 20 min

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