The Substance (2024)

The Substance Review

The Substance

Initial release: May 19, 2024
Director: Coralie Fargeat
Distributed by: Mubi, Metropolitan Filmexport
Production companies: Working Title Films; A Good Story

Female self-loathing has never been more madcap, impossible to contain or liberating than in “The Substance,” Coralie Fargeat’s riotously deranged fairy tale. And boy oh boy does it want to blow up and by blow up I mean obliterate — the cruel beauty standards that have been imposed on women for millennia by this weighty camp classic, which also happens to feature some of the nastiest body horror since “The Fly” or the last 15 minutes of “Akira.”

Think of Fargeat’s Cannes-approved follow-up as a shotgun blast square to the balls of a male ego so toxic she had to spend her entire immaculately made debut trying to dismantle it, only this time she turns the gun on herself. A few decades into her life and conditioned to feel both uselessness and resentment toward her younger self (also by society), Fargeat is hopping mad about how a woman’s fuckability is used as currency for worth. The result is like “Freaky Friday” meets “All About Eve” with Andrzej Żuławski’s “Possession,” but simple enough for a kid any kid! to understand without even needing subtitles, gross enough that even squeamish adults might just puke up their lunches before they can get home and recover. Anyone who can stick it out will be rewarded with one of the sickest two hours they’ve ever spent inside a theater; powered by the kind of go-for-broke performance that Hollywood actresses tend to give when they hit a certain age and run out of options (or actively lose their minds), this may well be remembered as the most dementedly entertaining movie of 2021.

If only all such stars were still in need of roles or willing to push themselves as hard as Demi Moore does here. Or angry enough at society, not least because we live in a world where Demi Moore has to go to a foreign language film festival just to remind us of what she’s capable. Her character is named Elisabeth Sparkle, and it’s safe to say that she’s lost some of her shine.

Fifty-year-old Oscar-winner who became a Jane Fonda-like fitness guru in middle-age, Elisabeth was already obsolete by the time “The Substance” starts (Fargeat being too smart to use any words when her camera can do all the talking for her shows this with a time-lapse shot of Elisabeth’s Hollywood Walk of Fame star getting scuffed up and abused over the years). She lives in Los Angeles, which means that no matter how many pictures hang on the walls of her apartment or how much cocaine she does off them, she will always have to deal with floor-to-ceiling windows that offer her a “Body Double”-worthy view of the city below. A grotesque network executive overhears this through his own disgusting ears while standing next to Elisabeth at a party:

A character named Harvey, played by Dennis Quaid as if he were Tappy Tibbons, represents the beginning of this movie’s end. It is just that in-your-face. You can practically smell what everyone had for lunch on set — which, in this case happens to be true in the very next scene when Elisabeth gets blindsided on some highway because she was looking at a person tearing down a billboard that had her face on it. Or so we thought — at the hospital where she’s taken after the crash, an extremely yassified male nurse with skin like an airbrushed high school yearbook photo slips her a USB drive containing a mysterious ad for something called “The Substance.” The video leads her to an empty-feeling unstaffed facility that could’ve been lifted straight out of a Charlie Kaufman movie, and to a lockbox containing the first of many weekly kits she’ll need for her treatment.

The instructions are simple enough (and suspiciously so), but Elisabeth is not interested in playing it safe. A one-time injection of Gatorade-yellow liquid starts things off, followed by daily stabilizers meant to keep balance between patient and full-sized “better version” of themself that bursts violently out of their back and jackknifes their spine open until it looks like some giant vagina. In Elisabeth’s case, the “other you” is dead ringer Margaret Qualley (better understood as physical manifestation of Elisabeth’s idealized self-image than literal embodiment of who she used to be), and doppelgänger number one sews up original Recipe herself.

Except it’s not quite so cut-and-dried: “THERE IS ONLY ONE YOU” insist the instructions: Elisabeth and “Sue” share one consciousness between two bodies, and that consciousness must switch back and forth every seven days without fail or…bad things will happen. Needless to say, such a schedule severely limits the amount of time one life can have, let alone two, and complications set in with a quickness.

On the one hand, Sue is in no hurry to become a body twice her age especially not after she nails some TV audition looking for “the next Elisabeth Sparkle” and becomes Harvey’s new it girl. On the other hand, Elisabeth is gutted by her ghostly experience as young sexpot and spends these long days feeling smaller than ever as her postmenopausal self; That Moore looks absolutely incredible for her age (and lets Benjamin Kračun’s camera wander around accordingly) only deepens the needless tragedy of Elizabeth’s self-worth.

Yet “The Substance” has been dipped in plastic and candied viscosity that draws relentless attention to its surfaces at all times, making any kind of asymmetrical blemish feel like sin against world’s prevailing aesthetic. Something about substance being style here there isn’t a shot in this movie that doesn’t want you to feel something very deeply, as Fargeat’s high-impact compositions are edited together with concussion-inducing rhythm that makes each of film’s UV sets feel like they belong to both fantasy and nightmare simultaneously (entire story takes place within few locations but they’re arranged with enough dynamism to easily conceal this).

It’s not just the smoothness of Sue’s unblemished skin, or the cellulite on Elisabeth’s butt, or the crinkled shrimp heads that come shooting out of Harvey’s mouth and into the wide-angle fish-eye lens trained right in front of his face during a working lunch, but that each detail is treated by Fargeat with equal violence; it feels as if she is trying to wrestle back for women all the over-the-top gore they have missed out on from cinema through male eyes. The strength of her visual design is matched only by her sound design. When Alka-Seltzers drop like depth charges into a glass of water it should make you nervous, very nervous, about what kind of nausea symphony her foley team can cook up for later scenes once things go south. When flesh starts rebelling, rotting and then worse.

Yet never does “The Substance” lose its fairy tale soul, especially since Sue will turn into a pumpkin if she doesn’t give up her body before midnight. The problem arises naturally enough during sex but Fargeat keeps men to sidelines where they belong: this conflict is strictly between Elisabeth and her own invalidation personified as Sue; any subplots would only distract from that one-sided fight.

And so it speaks to Moore’s naked despair in this movie that her most powerful scene might be when Elisabeth bails on a date because she can’t stand to look at herself in mirror anymore, smudging off makeup self-loathingly with same primal horror reserved for prosthetics later down line. Moore taps perfectly into “Cinderella” witchiness which consumes Elisabeth as she resents Sue’s youthfulness but hates herself more for doing so.

She never thinks of them as two halves same whole even though every other week Elisabeth literally becomes Sue; instead she sees Sue as “only lovable part”, an observation to which Qualley responds with toothy smile that in its devilish self-possession and denial of any decline, ever says “you’re damn right.” And if Moore is more exciting it’s only because Qualley has been swimming with directors like Denis and Lanthimos for her whole career, while Moore has never taken risk like this before; few actors of their caliber have. And where the risk takes her in movie’s batshit final act will leave your jaw on ground, assuming it hasn’t detached by then.

For its genre this is a long film, nearly two and a half hours, but Fargeat knows what she’s doing, and it isn’t a bland empowerment drama or a gentle plea to create a society where women don’t become invisible when they reach a certain age and it isn’t even something like Noémie Merlant’s “The Balconettes,” another strong entry in the post-#MeToo catalog of movies about women reclaiming their screen images on their own terms.“The Substance” is an unabated, go-until-you-puke epic that keeps piling on top of itself until it gives everyone in the audience a sick-to-their-stomach physical loathing for the belief that we can ever get away from ourselves. That’s not to say Fargaet doesn’t keep us laughing at (rather than screaming from) things with grotesque imagery so self-assuredly outrageous that Harvey himself wouldn’t stop until he were disgusted by how societal expectations force-feed body modification upon women; and so, like any good fairy tale with memorably terrifying special effects, “The Substance” ends with a moral you want to buy into: There’s more freedom in beauty than there is beauty in freedom. And God is it beautiful watching Elisabeth Sparkle and Demi Moore help each other find their way out into the bright.

Watch The Substance For Free On Gomovies.

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