Demi Moore’s gory new horror movie could win her an Oscar

Demi Moore attends a photocall for her new film ‘The Substance’ at the Cannes Film Festival (Getty Images)
Demi Moore attends a photocall for her new film ‘The Substance’ at the Cannes Film Festival (Getty Images)

People have been looking at Demi Moore’s body for more than 40 years. On the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991, nude and seven months pregnant. Rippling with muscles in GI Jane. Under strip club spotlights in Striptease. In her new horror film The Substance – which has become the most talked-about premiere at the Cannes Film Festival – we see her body again. Then again and again. But it’s gnarlier this time. A younger woman hatches out of Moore’s back, leaving behind two macabre flaps of flesh on either side of her spine. Over the course of the film, Moore ages and rots, every crease of her skin filmed with gooey sadism. It may be her shock ticket to an Oscar.

In the film, which received a rapturous 11-minute standing ovation after its Cannes premiere last night, Moore plays a faded Hollywood superstar, whose yearning for youth leads her to an experimental procedure: once injected with a mysterious fluid, she births an alternate version of herself (played by Margaret Qualley) – someone sparkling with sex appeal and youthful pep, whose body she can only ever inhabit for a total of seven days at a time, before she must revert back to her older self. If these Cinderella conditions aren’t adhered to, things will go awry. Which, naturally, they do.

The film, from the French director Coralie Fargeat, has proven divisive already, with some critics calling it “an audacious masterpiece”, and others calling it tired hagsploitation with little to actually say about women, age or Hollywood. Regardless, Moore is earning the best reviews of her career. “Moore has never really taken a risk of this nature before,” wrote IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. “The places that risk takes her in the movie’s absolutely bonkers final act will have your jaw on the floor, if it’s even still attached to your body.” “Ripping into her best big-screen role in decades, Moore is fearless,” raved the BBC. “Extraordinary,” added The Telegraph, with Variety remarking that Moore’s performance “is rippled with anger, terror, despair, and vengeance”. There have been suggestions she could surprise-win the Best Actress prize at Cannes, which would then thrust her straight to the top of prediction lists for next year’s Oscars.

Moore doesn’t typically generate this kind of conversation. Why bother discussing her performances when there are her famous ex-husbands Bruce Willis and Ashton Kutcher to talk about? Or nude scenes or massive salaries? (Her demand for pay parity with the male movie stars of the Nineties didn’t earn her media respect back then, but a snarky nickname: “Gimme Moore”.) Wipe away the gossip and she is one of our most underrated character actors, though, a woman who has always altered, subverted and exploited her physical form to tell stories. Think of her not as a Nineties bombshell, but more the female Christian Bale.

Just look back on some of her most famous roles. Indecent Proposal, in 1993, saw her place a figure on her own body: a million dollars for a single night with it, sex as a strictly transactional endeavour. The sexual harassment thriller Disclosure, released a year later, depicted her mere presence in a workplace as an act of violence: she is so sexually confident, so brazenly unemotional when it comes to matters of the heart, that men are rendered helpless. Striptease and GI Jane were two notorious Moore flops – in 1996 and 1997, respectively – but both saw her push her body to its limits. In the former, her character turns to exotic dance to pay the bills; Moore’s nudity and her sculpted, toned physique made up the entirety of the film’s marketing campaign. For the latter, Moore bulked up and shaved her head to play a female Navy Seal.

Whatever the quality of those films, these were roles that were delicious to watch Moore embody; acting, physical prowess and star image all working in tandem with one another. It was only in this era, when Moore began interrogating and subverting facets of her own celebrity, that she became a truly interesting actor.

Moore gore: Moore in ‘The Substance’ (Mubi)
Moore gore: Moore in ‘The Substance’ (Mubi)

Annoyingly, it was also when the backlash began. For her nude Vanity Fair cover – an image so culture-rattling that it has its own Wikipedia page – Moore’s critics were split down the middle. “One camp called it disgusting pornography and accused me of exhibitionism,” she writes in her 2019 memoir Inside Out. “Another saw it as a liberating breakthrough for women.” It was a conflict that would repeat throughout the Nineties, Moore at the centre of numerous cultural referendums on female sexuality, equality and power in Hollywood. No one really spoke about her acting – her determined resolve in GI Jane, or the haunting image of her keeling over in agony in the TV film If These Walls Could Talk, her character having undergone a clandestine abortion.

The Substance is, in a sense, a bold move for Moore, and there is a meta thrill to her playing an actor mourning her heyday and fixated on age and experimental plastic surgery (she had to repeatedly deny in the mid-Noughties that she’d spent $300,000 on cosmetic work ahead of filming 2003’s Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle). But there’s also something quite classic about her choice to be in the film, too: Moore has long poked fun at her own image and the media’s obsession with her body; baring it, distorting it and pushing it to extremes. If she does get Oscar’s attention, it won’t be because she’s doing something truly radical and new. It will be because people are finally paying attention.

‘The Substance’ will be released later this year