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From Cannes: ‘The Substance’ is a Sparkling and Divisive Body Horror

Dir. Coralie Fargeat — 4.5 Stars

Coralie Fargeat's film "The Substance" debuts at Cannes Film Festival in France.
Coralie Fargeat's film "The Substance" debuts at Cannes Film Festival in France. By Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
By J.J. Moore, Crimson Staff Writer

It is nearly unimaginable to not feel seen by French director Coralie Fargeat’s “The Substance,” which premiered at the 77th Annual Cannes Film Festival. The film received one of the longest standing ovations this year, shocking audiences and critics alike, and generating an undeniable buzz that rippled throughout the festival.

The film opens with an innocent egg being pierced by a needle. The yolk begins to morph, dividing into two identical copies. In these first few captivating seconds, the onslaught of sound is overpowering — screaming for audiences to prepare themselves for a film unlike any other.

“The Substance” follows Elisabeth Sparkle (Demi Moore), a formerly beloved celebrity-turned-fitness instructor whose boss (Dennis Quaid) is attempting to find a youthful replacement for her aging show. Due to her age, Elisabeth is discarded and pushed to try an experimental drug that promises to give her a younger, more beautiful, more “perfect” version of herself.

For the treatment, she injects herself with an activator, which generates a younger clone. Afterwards, Elisabeth and the clone must switch roles every seven days. The body in use gets to go out, while the other lays discarded and naked on the floor in a coma. The regimen is strict, but Elisabeth is willing to follow it. In doing so, she creates Sue (Margaret Qualley).

The film takes on a more radiant — some would even say youthful — tone after Sue appears. The dark-EDM music threatens to blast theater speakers, making it impossible for audiences to escape the compelling image. Sue waltzes in and replaces herself on Elisabeth’s fitness show — but what begins joyously slowly devolves when it is time for Sue to return to being Elisabeth.

When she’s back in her older body, a feeling of loneliness and depression descends. Slowly, the two sides of herself lash out at each other — Sue at Elisabeth’s incessant binge eating, which leaves their apartment a mess; Elisabeth at Sue for making her feel inadequate and unlovable. As Elisabeth says best, “I need you because I hate myself.”

Demi Moore arguably puts on the performance of her career. Despite the film’s glamorous yet repulsive nature, the most memorable scene is the calmest of them all. As Elisabeth prepares for a date, she is haunted by a billboard of Sue outside her high-rise apartment. In a tight red dress and beautiful makeup, Elisabeth can’t help but stare at herself in the mirror, picking apart every detail of her body.

The scene is familiar, one that so simply yet painfully portrays feeling uncomfortable in one’s skin. What started as five minutes of adding to her makeup, fixing her hair, adjusting her outfit turns into an hour, and soon Elisabeth is left dejectedly sitting in her bedroom unable to leave her apartment. It’s a sequence that could very well bring Moore to the Oscars.

Moore is not the only performer who shines in this film. Qualley, in her second appearance at Cannes this year, demonstrates her range as an actress. From her four different characters in Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Kinds of Kindness” to her vapid performance as Sue in “The Substance,” it is clear that she is an actress to watch out for this year and onward.

This film, however, is not overly dependent on its actors. “The Substance” creates its own unique visual language through Fargeat’s careful consideration of framing and microscopic sound design that picks up every minute detail. Some scenes are built with overhead montages that immerse audiences into characters’ individual perspective, begging for viewers to pay close attention. With this attention comes even more to be applauded, as the body horror is so perverse that it’s no wonder viewers were writhing in their seats.

That being said, “The Substance” would benefit from a shorter runtime. The film stumbles a bit ungracefully through its late middle act before finishing with a strong and brutal “Carrie”-esque finale. For body horror fans out there, it could be seen as a perfect ending to a near-perfect film. For others, it may be more divisive, and the film would do better if it reached a conclusion earlier. Nonetheless, it’s impossible not to look on in horror while also fully understanding the purpose of “The Substance.”

Fargeat, Moore, and Qualley should be applauded for tackling the pervasive issue of ageism in today’s culture with such reckless abandon. The film forces audiences to witness the violent consequences of living in a world where growing old is a sin and youth turns into a prison. The film has left critics abuzz and viewers ruminating on its meaning. When “The Substance” has its wide release, people should be careful not to miss it.

—Staff writer J.J. Moore can be reached at jj.moore@thecrimson.com.

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