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Cannes 2024 review: ‘The Substance’ - Coralie Fargeat’s spine-cleaving triumph

The Substance
The Substance Copyright Cannes Film Festival
Copyright Cannes Film Festival
By David Mouriquand
Published on
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Move aside, David Cronenberg – there’s a new body horror queen in town. Be warned: Weak stomachs need not apply.

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After her impressive calling card in 2017 with the bloody and candy-coloured Revenge, Coralie Fargeat has clearly been brushing up on her body horror. And she did not come to Cannes to play gently.

There isn’t anything in the French writer-director’s second film, The Substance, that hasn’t been addressed before. The fear of aging – specifically how Hollywood’s obsession with beauty leads to the ruthless system discarding female talent the second they’re “past it” - has been seen in countless films. However, Fargeat executes it with a merciless precision that out-Cronenbergs Cronenberg. She will have you squirming, wincing, gasping, laughing... and squirming some more.

Everything you need to know can be found in the first few frames: a needle plunges into an egg yolk, splitting the nucleus in two. We then get a time-lapsing overhead shot of a Walk of Fame star fading and cracking over the seasons, from the rat-a-tat of pap lights to a passer-by accidentally spilling and smearing copious amounts of ketchup onto it.

A hardly subtle bit of foreshadowing, but a damn exciting one.

That star belongs to aging Hollywood actress-turned-workout host Elisabeth Sparkle (Demi Moore). Her popular show, featuring the catchphrase “Take care of yourselves” isn’t what it used to be, and she gets unceremoniously fired because slimeball TV exec Harvey (Dennis Quaid) wants a revamp.

“We need her YOUNG, we need her HOT, we need her NOW,” he barks down the phone about Elisabeth’s replacement, before adding: “Did you know that a woman’s fertility begins to decrease at the age of 25?”

Quite the charmer, that one. (The name Harvey remind you of anyone?)

Faced with this sorry state of affairs, Elisabeth calls a number she’s been handed on a USB drive to join a mysterious program known as The Substance. “Have you ever dreamt of a better version of yourself?” It promises to deliver just that. Her starting kit features medical equipment and a specific set of protocols linked to the three stages: Activator, Stabilizer and Switch.

In a state of desperation, she injects the first dose of a neon serum and – brace yourselves – gives birth to her younger self (Margaret Qualley), who emerges in a fleshy pouch from her spine. The younger Elisabeth, named Sue, sutures the gaping spinal wound and follows the instructions to keep her older self alive, as it’s a “one week for you; one week for the new you; seven days each” gig.

After seven days, Elisabeth can go back to being herself while Sue is put on stasis. Inverse and repeat. What could go wrong? 

Plenty as it turns out, as the newly spawned starlet quickly finds her moorings and takes over the workout show, to the delight of Harvey and the execs. Fame and attention have a dizzying effect on Sue, who will gradually disregard the final warning given by the faceless organisation behind The Substance: “The two of you are one.” And the consequences are not pleasant.

Coming off as an unholy fusion between “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” and Death Becomes Her – with some loving nods to The Shining, John Carpenter’s The Thing and Brian Yuzna’s cult nightmare Society - The Substance is one hell of a wild ride. In showing how the entertainment industry pushes women to extremes in order to remain employable, Frageat explores society’s impossible beauty standards, how certain medical industries weaponize their fetishization of youth for profit, as well as the internalised hatred stemming from systemic misogyny. It may not go particularly deep, but the savage form emphatically mirrors the content; the violence of disappearing in society’s eyes and the self-loathing that decries from this external trauma becoming internalised can only be expressed in an equally vicious way. And it’s bloody well executed. 

Quite literally, as some of the gory elements in this VeryFreaky Friday will melt your face. Needless to say that anyone squeamish about penetrating syringes, puss-discharging wounds, or massive flesh sacks being yanked out of bellybuttons would do well to sit this one out.

There’s a queasy tactility to every frame, through immersive close-ups or carefully chosen colour palettes which complement the unrelentingly sharp sound design. Major plaudits to Fargeat’s Foley team, as well as makeup effects designer Pierre-Olivier Persin, who gets to have a lot of fun with practical effects in The Substance ’s Cronenberg-ian flourishes. These elements work in perfect unison to create a fairytale that the Brothers Grimm would doubtlessly have reacted to with a “That’s a bit much, nein?”

Fargeat plays with fairytale archetypes, specifically through the character of Elisabeth. Avoiding the “hagsploitation” label, she instead makes her lead protagonist an amalgamation of the traditional triptych of female character signifiers. Elisabeth was once the Maiden; now the Mother to the new fairest of them all; and is pushed into becoming the Crone by the rule-dodging Sue, who takes on the role of a leeching parasite. This cycle is doomed to repeat itself, and through Moore’s career-best performance, that realisation hits hard. Thematically and gorily. 

Moore puts herself through the motions both emotionally and physically, and her casting is a canny coup. The film’s condemnation of Hollywood’s ageist practices also works as a blood-splattered mirror reflection on Moore’s own career trajectory. Her casting, much like the in-demand Qualley and how her body currently differs to Moore’s on screen, further proves The Substance ’s point. With any luck, it could convince studios to rethink which roles go to which women over a certain age. Hope springs sanguinary - sorry, eternal. 

By the time the grotesque crescendo of the final act comes along, Fargeat reclaims the hyper-sexualised male gaze, makes Carrie look like a pretty decent time at the prom, and reveals The Substance to be a deliriously visceral cautionary tale - one that reminds audiences that you are always your own worst enemy.

Cannes got splattered. You should do too.

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Take care of yourselves.

The Substance premieres at the Cannes Film Festival in Competition.

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