‘The Substance’ Review: Demi Moore and Margaret Qualley in a Visionary Feminist Body-Horror Film That Takes Cosmetic Enhancement to Extremes

Shocking and resonant, disarmingly grotesque and weirdly fun, “The Substance” is a feminist body-horror film that should be shown in movie theaters all over the land. By that, I don’t mean that it’s some elegant exercise in egghead darkness like the films of David Cronenberg, or a patchy postmodern punk curio like “Titane.” Coralie Fargeat, the writer-director of “The Substance,” has a voice that’s italicized, in-your-face, garishly accessible and thrillingly extreme. She draws on much of the hyperbolic flamboyance that’s come to define megaplex horror. But unlike 90 percent of those movies, “The Substance” is the work of a filmmaker with a vision. She’s got something primal to say to us.

“The Substance” tells the story of an aging Hollywood actress-turned-aerobics-workout-host, named Elisabeth Sparkle and played by Demi Moore, who gets fired from a TV network because she is now deemed too old. In a rage of desperation, she calls a number that’s been handed to her anonymously and gets hooked up with a sinister sci-fi body-enhancement program known as The Substance. She is given a heap of medical equipment sealed into plastic bags (syringes, tubing, a phosphorescent green liquid, a gooey white injectable food product), and she’s told about the protocol regarding her new self — which, the program warns, will also be her old self. “The two of you are one,” say the instructions. What does that mean?

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It means that after she gives herself the injections, Elisabeth passes into a state of hibernation on the bathroom floor, her skin splits open right down the spine, and, like the pod people emerging from human beings in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” out comes her new self: a “perfect” specimen of sexy vibrant youthful womanhood played by Margaret Qualley. The deal is this: The young replacement, named Sue, can go out into the world and rule — for one week. And she does, getting her own workout show (called “Pump It Up with Sue”). A star is born. But then she has to lay down, in her own hibernation, while Elisabeth, in her same old face and body, is up and around again. The two trade off, feeding each other, so that Elisabeth gets to “be” Sue every other week. It’s like “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” retold as a dream/nightmare of the trillion-dollar culture of cosmetic enhancement.

Fargeat, who has made one previous feature (2017’s “Revenge”), works in a wide-angle-lens, up-from-exploitation style that might be described as cartoon grindhouse Kubrick. It’s like “A Clockwork Orange” fused with the kinetic aesthetics of a state-of-the-art television commercial. Fargeat favors super-close-ups (of body parts, cars, eating, kissing), with sounds to match, and she also vacuums up influences the way Brian De Palma once did (though he, in this case, is one of them). We’ve all seen dozens of retreads of the Jekyll-and-Hyde story, but Fargeat, in her imaginative audacity, fuses it with “Showgirls,” and even that isn’t enough for her. She draws heavily on the hallucinatory moment in “The Shining” where Jack Torrance embraces a young woman in a bathtub, only to see her transformed into a cackling old crone. Beyond that, Fargeat‘s images recall the exploding-beast-with-a-writhing-face in John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” the bloodbath prom of “Carrie,” and the addiction-turned-dread of “Requiem for a Dream.”

What makes all of this original is that Coralie Fargeat fuses it with her own stylized aggro voice (she favors minimal dialogue, which pops like something out of a graphic novel), and with her feminist outrage over the way that women have been ruled by the world of images. At first, though, the over-the-top-ness does take a bit of getting used. Dennis Quaid plays the brash pig of a network executive, in baroquely decorated suit jackets, who has decided to fire Elisabeth, and when he’s having lunch with her, shoving shrimp in his mouth from what feels like four inches away from the audience, you want to recoil as much as she does. But Fageat is actually great with her actors; she knows that Quaid’s charisma, even when he’s playing a showbiz vulgarian as reprehensible as this, will make him highly watchable.

And Demi Moore’s performance is nothing short of fearless. She’s playing, in some very abstract way, a version of herself (once a star at the center of the universe, now old enough to be seen by sexist Hollywood as past it), and her acting is rippled with anger, terror, despair, and vengeance. There’s a lot of full-on nudity in “The Substance,” to the point that the film flirts with building a male gaze into the foundation of its aesthetic. Yet it does so only to pull the rug of voyeurism out from under us. Margaret Qualley makes Sue crisply magnetic in her confidence, and the fact that Sue knows how to package herself as an “object” is part of the film’s satirical design. She’s following the rules, “giving the people what they want.” It’s clear, I think, that Qualley is going to be a major star, and you see why here. She takes this stylized role and imbues it with a hint of mystery. For “The Substance” is finally a story of dueling egos, with Elisabeth’s real self and her enhanced self going at each other in a war for dominance.

They’re supposed to be comrades – indeed, the same person — but when Sue, high on being Sue, overstays her week, and has to feed off an extra bit of Elisabeth’s sustaining fuel, she’s taking the life energy from Elisabeth. And Elisabeth will pay the price; her body parts will begin to age. The movie’s metaphors are vividly organic. In our world, you can attain, through physical enhancement, a “new” self, but the film is saying that when you do you’re a parasite who’s leeching off your old self, and maybe your real self. There’s only so much you to go around.

“The Substance” does indeed play off “Showgirls” and the whole history of Hollywood cat-fight melodramas. The movie, in its visceral way, is deliriously ambitious (and, at 140 minutes, easily 20 minutes too long). But as it moves into the final chapter, its relatively restrained interface with body horror erupts into something cathartic in its extremity. Sue, at this point, has taken most of the life from Elisabeth, which means that Elisabeth has turned into a body so decrepit she makes the bathtub hag in “The Shining” look like Grace Kelly. But Fargeat is just getting started. The climactic sequence is set during the taping of the network’s New Year’s Eve special, which Sue has been chosen to host, and what happens there must be seen to be believed. Even if you watch horror movies all year long, this is still one of the rare ones to come up with a true monster, not just a mass of warped flesh but a deformation of the spirit. This, the film says, is what we’re repressing. It’s what we’re doing to ourselves.

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