The Substance Review

REVIEW: The Substance

From female screenwriter and director Coralie Fargeat comes The Substance, a body horror film that follows an aging celebrity (Demi Moore) who happens across a black market drug that will allow her to temporarily become a younger, better version of herself.

Everything about The Substance is loud, from the bright primary colours of Elizabeth (Moore)’s office and apartment to the metallics of Sue (Margaret Qualley)’s costumes down to the music choices, this is a film that refuses to be ignored. There are various scenes of violence, rage and aggression that fill not only the screen but the air around with overpowering noise, I couldn’t help but wonder how the police within the film weren’t outside the apartment door on an hourly basis.

The Substance Review

The loudest and most daring elements are of course the body horror effects used throughout the film. Starting with simple but shiver-inducing dead nails, leading up to insanely wild and out there grotesqueness that had me thinking of 1989’s ‘Society’, there were gasps and shrieks in my screening linked to both the visuals and brain-splitting sound effects, but you can’t help but want to watch the horrors that unfold on the screen before you.

Demi Moore leans all the way in to the physical comedy and horror here, giving a powerful and heartbreaking performance relatively independently, as large portions of her story involve her isolation. It’s easy to see why Moore would be attracted to a part like this, but also exciting to see her be so free within the role. Whether she is delivering angry monologues to no-one or horrifying the audience with her physical form and movement, she takes no prisoners.

Margaret Qualley who takes the other form of Sue is equally powerful in her performance, acting almost alien-like in her navigation of the world in her new form. Qualley has chosen various daring and strange roles in her career and her work here in The Substance is no different. Whilst this feels very much like Moore’s film for the majority, she knows her angles and how to steal the show when needed, making her the perfect alternate to Moore’s Elizabeth.

The Substance Review

Fargeat won the best screenplay award at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, and for good reason. The film uses its relatively sparse amount of dialogue to highlight the injustices and sinister treatment of women in the entertainment industry. Combined with its use of fish eye lenses to frame certain characters, comically over-the-top line deliveries and visual uses of food to create discomfort in the audience, Fargeat wants us to feel uncomfortable as voyeurs to Elizabeth’s descent into madness. But it’s not just an indictment of the entertainment industry.

The Substance also has a lot to say on the pressure we as women place on our own bodies. I know very few women who don’t look back to images of themselves in their teens and 20s without saying ‘god I wish I knew what I had back then, I wish I had been more confident’. As Elizabeth splits into two in the film, it becomes clear that neither version of herself has any respect for what she perceives as aging and useless form, until it’s too late and she realises what she had only after it’s gone. In a world where we are constantly striving for perfection, always looking for our next fix or filter, Fargeat’s story questions what it is that leads us to hate ourselves quite so much.

The film doesn’t always succeed in hitting these points, with various shots of Qualley in particular feeling heavily male gaze orientated and the use of an aging body used to provoke disgust, but the ideas are there to be dissected and the film is an absolute riot whether you choose to look into these, or if you’re just along for the pulpy horror.

Where to Watch

The Substance | September 20, 2024 (United States) 7.7


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