The Substance: a thrilling but ultimately hollow body horror

Demi Moore gives a winning performance as a fading Hollywood star who undergoes a grisly body-splitting treatment, but in its ‘monstering’ of the older female body, Coralie Fargeat's film presents a confused argument about the politics of ageing.

The Substance (2024)
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. 

In Coralie Fargeat’s second feature The Substance, Demi Moore plays Elizabeth Sparkle, a Hollywood star whose advancing age has since cast a shadowy veil over her celebrity. The actress-turned-fitness guru (​perhaps ​more Olivia Newton-John than Jane Fonda) suddenly finds herself ousted from the helm of her aerobics show by network executive Harvey (Dennis Quaid), a winkingly named lecherous boor. It doesn’t help that, outside of her dwindling career, Elizabeth appears to have no close friends or family. She returns to her lavish apartment, with its regal azure living room and cavernous, pristine white bathroom, dwarfed by all the empty space.  

A feverish devotion to fame, or really, desirability – a testament to her own fundamental self-rejection – leads her to The Substance, an injection of luminous green fluid that generates another Self: younger, more glamorous, and ​immaculately ​​beautiful. Elizabeth sires Sue (Margaret Qualley), who emerges in an spine-splitting “birth” sequence from her back. The​ regimen to maintain these ‘selves’​​ requires no small effort: for seven days, one of them lives while the other sleeps, subsisting intravenously off the mysterious contents of weekly kits delivered to a secret lockbox. As always, there is a caveat: they must switch every seven days – “no exceptions” – the balance must be honoured. And predictably, Elizabeth and Sue need reminding: “There is only one you.”  

Already we have the prime conditions for disaster: Sue swiftly ascends as the network’s darling and begins to stretch her waking time, testing the balance, which causes Elizabeth’s body to swell and rot with every temporal violation. She sinks into delirious despair, binge-eating and shrinking from the outside world altogether, menaced by the billboard of Sue looming just outside her window. In that way, this parasitic dyad is only vaguely more Jekyll and Hyde than Dorian Gray. Sue – perhaps a nod to Carrie (1976), given one particular late sequence – is Elizabeth’s ideal self, an autonomous masochistic/narcissistic fantasy. They clearly share some slither of a consciousness, but they are not so much psychically linked as they are two tethered bodies; for each is increasingly disturbed, upon revival, to discover how the other has used their time.  

Fargeat’s feature debut Revenge (2017) established the director (who pulls triple duty again as screenwriter and editor) as an especially dynamic filmmaker with an original visual language. She largely delivers on that early promise here with signature aesthetic precision and meticulous attention to symmetry. Bathed in rich colours – vivid blood-reds, bright yellows, deep Gothic blues, in certain moments reminiscent of Anna Biller’s dark comedy The Love Witch (2016) – cinematographer Benjamin Kracun’s stylish, elegant compositions grace this modern fairy tale with an uneasy, too perfect beauty that conceals some of i​t​s flimsier elements. 

Demi Moore as Elizabeth Sparkle in The Substance (2024)

​​The Substance, it should be said, makes for a thrilling watch, despite its indulgent runtime. But the film’s ideological ambitions feel slight, and Fargeat ​cannot quite mount a coherent argument, perhaps ​laden ​with too many references to carve out ​an original​ path: among them, Carrie, Sisters (1972), Alien (1979), The Shining (1980), and certainly it owes a spiritual debt to Death Becomes Her (1992). Faced with the all too familiar project of feminine performance, a ritual of masquerade and scrupulous preservation, Fargeat adopts the sexualizing eye that dominates the world of images. Indeed, Sue, with her gold heart-shaped earrings, tennis skirts, pink manicured nails, and briefly, a skin-tight leather jumpsuit, appears an avatar of teenage male fantasy. 

The horror, then, and much of the comedy, resides in the rapidly deteriorating body of Elizabeth, who never becomes much more than an archetype herself. Despite a ​winning​​, committed performance from Demi Moore, the script withholds defining Elizabeth’s emotional paralysis with any real texture. In another context, this may not have been an issue, but the film does not quite defy the expectations of women as spectacle-objects. The finale ultimately turns the aged female body grotesque and monstrous, which, ​although genre tradition​, strikes especially hollow here, under the cloud of all the far more memorable and, indeed, thematically richer films from which this one continually borrows​. ​And if Fargeat ​hopes to condemn any institution or social framework, we, too, are denied the pleasure of seeing women as anything more than what they represent for those forces.      

Horror need not be empowering or even, for that matter, progressive (in fact, the genre in its current condition may well benefit from less political fixation), but these are the terms Fargeat appears to stage or, at least, welcomes. In all those classics, buried beneath all the anxieties around sexual difference, we might locate something far more interesting than the feminine narcissistic preoccupation with her own mangled, patriarchal reflection: that is, the recognition of her threat to a vulnerable male power. Here, she remains ​ever under its thumb.