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The Substance

  • Film
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Photograph: Christine Tamalet/Cannes Film Festival

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

This magnificent shocker heralds the squelchy, sick-making birth of a new horror maestro

Thought Coralie Fargeat’s ferocious vengeance thriller Revenge was a full-bore assault on the senses? The Substance, the daredevil French filmmaker’s latest, is here to push her extreme cinema a yard or two further in genuinely disgusting, but wildly entertaining and even thoughtful new directions. Some will run screaming – or as at my Cannes screening, muttering darkly – but if it’s your jam, this could just be your new favourite horror movie.

The Substance sets out in the garb of a sci-fi full of Spandex-and-electro ’80s overtones, before mutating into something deliriously over-the-top as it explores the crushing aesthetic pressures placed on women in icky and necrotic ways. The final reel, in particular, is here for anyone who felt that The Fly’s skin-crawlingly gory climax was a little restrained.

Fading star Elizabeth Sparkle (Demi Moore), a long-ago Oscar-winner for a film no one can quite remember, has been fired from her job as a Jane Fonda-alike TV aerobics star and left to stew on an empty future in her vast LA apartment. Her slimy boss Harvey (Dennis Quaid) wants to replace her with a younger, more beautiful model. So when an opportunity arises for her to try ‘The Substance’, a mysterious green fluid that clones from Elizabeth herself a younger, more beautiful model called Sue (Margaret Qualley), she’s too desperate to ponder the perils – or the mechanics. Which, excruciatingly, include using a four-inch needle to extract spinal fluid as daily nourishment. 

This could just be your new favourite horror movie

Straightaway, this ingenious premise clues you into how and where things will unravel. Sue is as young, ambitious and impulsive as Elizabeth once was, and is soon stealing time from her older alter ego, speeding her ageing process in horrifying ways. The pair engage in hilarious pass-agg flatsharing and begin using their ‘awake’ time to sabotage each other. Sue has her eyes on a bigger prize: a plumb hosting gig at Quaid’s network. Elizabeth wants it all to stop. 

It’s the best kind of controlled chaos as Fargeat takes the handbrake off and lets the shocks escalate towards that eyeball-rubbingly lurid climax. Props, too, to SFX man Olivier Afonso – veteran of the chewy pleasures of Julia Ducournau’s cannibal drama Raw – whose old-school prosthetics recall Rob Bottin’s freaky creations for The Thing.

The tone is incredibly specific – darkly funny, exuberant, sad and enraged – and the small cast nails it. Quaid delivers a revolting exhibition of sleazy male entitlement, while Qualley is a wide-eyed ingénue who weighs up her new reality like a Terminator, all inquisitiveness and ruthless calculation.

But it’s Moore who glues it all together, going full Isabelle Adjani-in-Possession in a vanity-free performance full of bruised ego, dawning horror and vulnerability. If she’s channelling her own Hollywood experiences into this burnt-out supernova, it’s an extra gift. Either way, she brings a sorrowful note that enriches Fargeat’s treatise on the absurd expectations around female beauty and the indignities of ageing. Just don’t expect to eat afterwards. 

The Substance premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Coralie Fargeat
  • Screenwriter:Coralie Fargeat
  • Cast:
    • Dennis Quaid
    • Demi Moore
    • Margaret Qualley
    • Hugo Diego Garcia
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