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Demi Moore & Margaret Qualley in Body Horror

Demi Moore & Margaret Qualley in Body Horror

Not long into Coralie Fargeat’s campy body horror The Substance, Elisabeth Sparkle (Demi Moore) is unceremoniously fired from her gig as the celebrity host of a daytime exercise program. The former actress’ credentials — an Academy Award, a prominent place on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — aren’t enough to save her Zumba-meets-Jillian-Michaels-style show, fittingly called Sparkle Your Life. Her producer, an oily personality conspicuously named Harvey (Dennis Quaid), wants to replace Elisabeth with a younger, more beautiful star. In his words: “This is network TV, not charity.” 

The Substance, which premiered at Cannes in competition, is Fargeat’s second feature. It builds on the director’s interest in the disposability of women in a sexist society, a theme she first explored in her hyper-stylized and gory 2017 thriller Revenge. She gave that film a subversive feminist bent by turning the trophy girlfriend — a sunny blonde who is raped and murdered — into a vengeance-seeking hunter.

The Substance

The Bottom Line

Uneven genre offering boosted by formal ambition and Demi Moore.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Demi Moore, Dennis Quaid, Margaret Qualley
Director-screenwriter: Coralie Fargeat

2 hours 20 minutes

In The Substance, a woman also takes fate into her own hands and combats underestimation, only this time she’s at war with herself, too. Fargeat combines sci-fi elements (as in her early short Reality+) with body horror and satire to show how women are trapped by the dual forces of sexism and ageism. Beauty and youth are the targets at the heart of this film, but the director also takes aim at Hollywood’s ghoulish machinations and the compulsive physical and psychological intrusiveness of cisgender heterosexual men. 

Fargeat flaunts an exciting hyperactive style. Ultra wide-angle shots, close-ups and a bubble-gum color palette contribute to the film’s surreal — and at times uncanny — visual language. The British composer Raffertie’s thunderous score adds an appropriately ominous touch, especially during moments of corporeal mutilation. 

There’s a lot going on in The Substance, and while the ambition is admirable, not everything works. The thin plotting strains under the weight of its 2 hour 20 minute runtime; there are scenes, especially in the middle of the film, that land as leaden repetition instead of clever mirroring. But strong performances — especially from Moore and Quaid — help sustain momentum through the film’s triumphantly amusing end.

During his final meeting with Elisabeth, Harvey doubles down on his offensiveness. By the time women reach the age of 50, he suggests to Elisabeth while stuffing his mouth with shrimp, it’s over for them. Fargeat heightens the perversity of Harvey’s blunt assessment with shots of his mouth masticating on shellfish bits. As he crushes the coral-colored creatures with his molars, Elisabeth stares at him with a faint disgust bordering on hatred. Quaid’s character lives in the more satirical notes of The Substance, and the actor responds with an appropriately mocking performance.

Harvey’s words, coupled with the blank stares Elisabeth now receives from passersby, drive the actress to seek a solution. She reaches out to the anonymous purveyors of The Substance, a program that allows people to essentially clone a younger version of themselves. While Fargeat’s screenplay leaves much to be desired when it comes to conveying the company’s scale of operations or how they function in her version of Los Angeles, the rules of the experiment are straightforward. After individuals spawn their duplicates, it’s critical they maintain a balanced life. Every 7 days one of them enters a coma, kept alive through a feeding tube, while the other roams free. Then they switch. The catch, of course, is the addiction of youth. 

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Elisabeth and her younger self (Margaret Qualley), Sue, follow the program rules for a bit. The middle of The Substance is packed with scenes underscoring the difference in treatment they receive. While Sue blossoms, winning the affection of Harvey and getting her own exercise show, Elisabeth languishes in the shadow of her invisibility.

Moore imbues her character with a visceral desperation, one that enriches the unsettling undercurrents of Fargeat’s film. She plays a woman who can’t quit the addiction of having youth at her fingertips despite its lacerating effect on her psyche. In one particularly strong scene, Elisabeth, haunted by a giant billboard of Sue outside her window, struggles to leave the house for a date. She tirelessly redoes her makeup and each attempt reveals the layers of anguish behind the actress’s pristine facade. 

Moore leans into the physical requirements of her role later in the film. Elisabeth eventually learns that upsetting the balance of the experiment reduces her vitality. Sue, greedier for more time outside the coma, becomes a kind of vampire, and Elisabeth wilts. Moore’s slow walk and hunched shoulders add to the sense of her character’s suffering. Special makeup effects by Pierre-Olivier Persin render Elisabeth’s withering even more startling and persuasive.  

Qualley does not have as meaty a role as Moore. Her character functions as Elisabeth’s foil, seeming to exist only to help us understand the perversion of Hollywood’s gaze on the starlet. That’s a shame, because The Substance’s smart premise and direction promise more revelatory confrontations between Elisabeth and Sue than the one we are offered.

The reality of this experiment is that it traps both characters in the same toxic, self-hating cycle as the standards imposed by society. The most compelling parts of The Substance deal with how social conventions turn women against themselves. A stronger version of the film might have dug into the complexities of that truth, instead of simply arranging itself around it. 

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