The Substance Review

Reviewed on May 19th at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival – Competition. 140 Mins

Cast: Margaret Qualley, Demi Moore, Dennis Quaid

Genre: Body Horror, Drama, Horror

Director: Coralie Fargeat


Coralie Fargeat, known for her intense thriller ‘Revenge’ in 2017, ventures into death metal or brutal injury metal. ‘The Substance’ is a delightfully absurd and excessively indulgent piece of gonzo body-horror comedy, unapologetically lacking in subtlety or any form of positivity, even body-positivity. It’s a film that would have captured the heart of Roger Corman. Despite its flaws and lengthy runtime, it showcases a stroke of brilliance in the casting of Demi Moore, who brings a commendable sense of humour to her role. As provocative satire, it stands tall, arguably outshining even two Palme d’Or winners: Julia Ducournau’s ‘Titane’ and Ruben Östlund’s ‘Triangle of Sadness.’ Its impact on the body horror genre is undeniable, making it a must-watch for enthusiasts.

The Substance boasts a deceptively simple title that drips with irony. The name refers to a magical potion seemingly designed for individuals devoid of natural substance, their worth measured solely by the superficial attributes of youth and beauty. Set in Los Angeles, the film serves as a unique take on “Death Becomes Her” (1992) and draws from a rich lineage of cult classics, ultimately weaving a cautionary tale about the dangers of getting what you wish for. Demi Moore takes the lead in what may be the boldest role of her career. She plays an ageing entertainer who is unceremoniously discarded by the sleazy producer of her television fitness show, deemed no longer fit for the youth-obsessed industry. Director Fargeat begins the narrative in familiar territory, slowly building tension before escalating into a frantic, Grand Guignol-style climax. This bloody crescendo contributes to body horror, rivalling the best of David Cronenberg’s 1980s works, cementing the genre’s status.


Elisabeth Sparkle (Moore) has enjoyed a distinguished career as an actor and entertainer. With an Academy Award, she has successfully transitioned into a fitness guru with a popular television series. However, as she finishes filming her latest episode, which coincides with her fiftieth birthday, she is unceremoniously dismissed by the show’s slick producer, played by Dennis Quaid, who wants to replace her with someone younger and more marketable. On that same day, Elisabeth is involved in a car accident but miraculously escapes without any injuries. While recovering at the hospital, she encounters a sinister orderly who gives her a mysterious USB flash drive. The drive contains information about “The Substance,” an injectable serum that allows users to live a separate life in a younger body for seven days at a time. An ominous narrator explains that although the user inhabits a younger body, the two bodies are intrinsically connected, and the seven-day rule is absolute. Sceptical but intrigued, Elisabeth decides to try the serum. As a result, a younger woman named Sue (portrayed by Margaret Qualley) emerges from Elisabeth’s body. Sue auditions to be Elisabeth’s replacement on the show and impressively secures the role. However, Sue quickly becomes unwilling to share her time with Elisabeth, and maintaining her existence requires a macabre daily ritual: injecting herself with Elisabeth’s spinal fluid. When the seven-day limit is breached for the first time, Elisabeth notices irreversible changes to her body. Despite her attempts to manage Sue, the younger woman proves uncontrollable. As the physical and psychological toll mounts, Elisabeth grapples with the realisation that the serum’s price may be far too high.


Sue’s unnerving and almost diabolical perfection unravels when she deviates from the instructions. Fargeat ensures we don’t miss the bizarre and offensive comment made by one of the producers auditioning an eager hopeful: “Too bad her tits aren’t in the middle of her face.” This foreshadows the upcoming horror and the film’s shocking, satirical obsession with breasts. Although the movie becomes absurd and somewhat repetitive towards its prolonged conclusion, Moore revels in the postmodern predicament. Embracing its trashiness and lack of serious substance.


It’s a thrilling descent into controlled chaos as Fargeat releases the handbrake, allowing the shocks to build to a wildly extravagant climax. The tone is distinctively dark, combining humour, vitality, sadness, and rage, and the small cast excels in delivering it. Quaid gives a disgusting display of sleazy male entitlement, while Qualley portrays a wide-eyed ingénue who assesses her new reality with the curiosity and ruthless precision of a Terminator. However, Moore holds everything together, delivering a fearless performance reminiscent of Isabelle Adjani in Possession, marked by a bruised ego, dawning horror, and vulnerability. If she’s drawing from her own Hollywood experiences for this intense role, it’s a bonus. Regardless, she adds a poignant layer to Fargeat’s commentary on the absurd expectations of female beauty and the indignities of ageing. Just don’t expect to have an appetite afterwards.

Overall: 7.5/10

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