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The Substance

Coralie Fargeat's deliciously bonkers body horror is a grotesque, groovy and hilarious riff on sexism, ageism, and the absurd beauty standards forced upon women - from the 77th Festival de Cannes


Elisabeth Sparkle (Demi Moore) leads a glitzy life. She is the presenter of a popular fitness show on television. She wears a vintage spandex and rapidly shakes her booty as keen audiences emulate her work-out lessons. The show is colourful, the music is loud (“pump it up, you’ve got to pump it up”) and Elisabeth looks absolutely stunning. But good looks, energy and talents aren’t enough. Elisabeth is getting old and about to be replaced, she finds out one day as she accidentally enters the gents and overhears a detestable media executive (Dennis Quaid) discuss her imminent demise on the telephone.

So she purchases a bizarre and underground product called The Substance from a very dubious doctor. It enables Elisabeth to spawn a much younger and better-looking version of herself from her very own body, and in the very comfort of her clinical white bathroom inside her luxurious apartment overlooking some major (presumably) American city. This is how Sue (Margaret Qualley) literally pops into this world: the gorgeous proxy bursts out of Elisabeth’s back shortly after she injects herself with the miraculous solution (a fluorescent green liquid). It’s as crass as it sounds. For the experiment to work properly, the two women have to swap place every seven days without delay, or the procedure could go terribly awry. Elisabeth and Sue have very different personalities and their own will, it seems – despite the doctor’s insistence that they are in fact the same person. The stunning Sue begins to break the rules and take control, while Elisabeth suffers the shocking consequences of her alternate self’s reckless actions. Sue turns out to be a very inconvenient “self”: self-absorbed, self-obsessed, self-seeking and self-serving.

Coralie Fargeat’s sophomore feature (after the widely-acclaimed, blood-soaked female revenge thriller Revenge, 2018) is insane for its entire duration of 140 minutes. Energetic, plush, groovy, visceral, absurd and grotesque. This feminist version of Cronenberg is more Cronenbergian than Cronenberg himself: the horribly-gone-wrong transformation of The Fly (1986) is combined with the symbiotic twins of Dead Ringers (1988), with the cutaneous creature birth of The Brood (1979) and even with the spine attachments/injections of the far more lame eXistenZ (1999).Incidentally, the Canadian director premiered his latest film The Shrouds (also a body horror) this year in the same festival, and in the same competition strand. Throw in a touch of HR Giger-inspired creatures, and horrifically distorted monsters. Despite the clear influences, it is fair to say that The Substance is a whole different beast. So outrageous that it flirts with trashiness, to magnificent results.

The shambolic male characters are a caricature of self-entitlement and conceit, with a cynical Cheshire Cat corporate smile printed across their faces. Quaid delivers a hilariously exaggerated performance with aplomb. It feels a lot like the “emasculated” males of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023). The American director is the president of the Jury at the Festival this year, and I would hazard a guess her Palme d’Or predilections lie with this film. It indeed won the Best Screenplay award, but failed to snatch the event’s top prize (such eventuality would be frowned upon, as another French female director won the Palme d’Or just three years ago also with a female body horror movie, the terrific Titane).

The entire movie is a monstrous caricature of body fascism, and a denunciation of how some women wilfully put themselves through the wringer in order to confirm with our ageist and sexist society. Simply dirtylicious.

The Substance premiered in the Official Competition of the 77th Cannes International Film Festival, wer it won the Best Screenplay Award.

By Victor Fraga - 27-05-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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