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'The Substance' Review

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June 3, 2024
Hunter Friesen
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The Substance premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. Mubi will release it in theaters on September 20.

“And the Oscar for Best Sound goes to… The Substance!”

In a perfect world, that’s a phrase we should be hearing in about nine months. Of course, we live in a cruel world where the most prominent placement that phrase will have is in my dreams. But I’ll keep praying, because if something as traditionally anti-Oscar and deserving as The Zone of Interest can win this award, why can’t something equally great such as this?

And just like The Zone of Interest, you will not be able to get the same kind of visceral experience the movie delivers outside of the cinema. Too many bone-crunching, squirm-inducing, and ooey gooey that’ll have you regretting that buy one, get one chicken wing deal you splurged on just before sitting down to watch this.

But if there’s one thing writer/director Coralie Fargeat’s sophomore feature hates more than attached limbs and unspilled blood, it’s subtlety. The obsessive and borderline inhumane treatment Hollywood (and the public at large) has towards aging actresses is material that’s been mined several times before. Fargeat understands this and the assignment in front of her. If you’re not going to be first or the most insightful, then you might as well make damn sure you’re going to the most audaciously unforgettable.

This is where Demi Moore’s casting comes into play, with the metatextuality of her rise within The Brat Pack in the 80s followed by the sexually charged fall from grace in the 90s aiding the immediate characterization of Elizabeth Sparkle. Although she’s still in great shape, her age has recently forced her to host a fledgling home workout TV show that shares the same production qualities as Jane Fonda did in the 80s. Her boss Harvey (again, subtlety is for cowards), secretly wants to boot her from the show for someone younger.

A coincidence at the doctor’s office a few days later has Elizabeth talking to an eerily beautiful young physician, who gives her the information for an underground procedure called The Substance. The mysterious organization running the operation doesn’t ask for anything in return, just that you respect the rules. In exchange, the drug Elizabeth injects will force her body to give birth to a much younger and anatomically perfect version of herself. This new body, named Sue (Margaret Qualley), has Elizbaeth’s brain and memories, but none of the cellulite. The one big rule is that Elizabeth must alternate between each body one week at a time, or decomposition will occur.

In true Gremlins fashion, this rule is at first followed, only to be bent, and, then, fully broken. Elizabeth and Sue might be the same person on the inside, but they each have different desires and the means to acquire them. Fargeat showed a penchant for blood and guts in her 2017 debut Revenge, something that The Substance takes to whole new levels. Cannes audiences may have thought they had already grown slightly accustomed to this through Titane and Crimes of the Future, but this is a different beast altogether. The underground dwellers that worship at the altar of Frank Henenlotter and Society finally have something that represents them on the biggest stage.

The high-quality production is not just reserved for the grotesque makeup and piercing sound design. The fish-eye lenses Yorgos Lanthimos used to capture his off-kilter versions of England in The Favourite and Poor Things have found a new home in Hollywood, capturing everything from the male audience’s gazing on Sue’s revealing buttocks to Harvey spewing shrimp tails out of his mouth. Neverending monochromatic hallways line the studio, creating a candy-colored maze from corporate hell.

The only thing bolder than those colors is Moore and Qualley’s dual performances as Elizabeth/Sue. Moore maintains a headstrong presence even as things get increasingly deranged, fully trusting in Fargeat’s vision. Qualley balances her physical schoolgirl perfectionism with her demented inner self as Elizabeth tries to maintain control of the situation. And then there’s also Dennis Quaid as Harvey, delivering a gonzo performance that very well could be his best in decades. It makes you yearn to see him tackle more roles like this, while also fully acknowledging that his personal statements (recently saying that he would vote for Trump again on Piers Morgan Uncensored) have limited his prospects.

Based on the relatively weird vibe of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it seems only fitting for Fargeat to out Cronenberg David Cronenberg himself only a day before he premiered his new film The Shrouds (the less said about that, the better). With Julia Ducournau and Fargeat rising through the ranks of international cinema, the no-holds-barred corner that they occupy is looking like a mighty fine place to camp out for a while.

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