In “The Substance,” Aging Is the Ultimate Body Horror

Plus: "Emilia Perez" isn't worth the hype at Cannes

May 20, 2024 3:08 pm
The Substance
Demi Moore in "The Substance"
Cannes Film Festival

This is the third installment of the 2024 edition of the French Dispatches, our on-the-ground coverage of the Cannes Film Festival.

I did say, at the beginning of this festival, taking in Furiosa and the Opening Night tribute to jury president Greta Gerwig, that women’s rage and strong female characters would be a theme of this Cannes, and lo, into the discourse already prepared for it steps The Substance. Developed at Universal but offloaded to the independent distributor Mubi before the festival for a hefty price, the film received an 11-minute ovation at its premiere (as timed by Variety), the longest of the festival, and, at the exact halfway point of the Competition, topped Screen’s international critics grid. It now seems very unlikely to leave the festival without a prize — either an acting award for Demi Moore, or something bigger. Reminiscent of Titane, with which it shares an obvious debt to the body horror of David Cronenberg, The Substance is a French writer-director’s Cannes Competition debut and sophomore feature following a competently made, viscerally upsetting, transparently allegorical genre-film debut. Like Fargeat’s first film, the appropriately titled 2017 rape-revenge thriller Revenge, The Substance is done up in shades of Barbie bubblegum pink (it also repeats Barbie’s ironic appropriation of Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” from 2001) and coated in layer upon layer of wet, slick gore.

Moore plays Elisabeth Sparkle (a name from a postmodern novel, though not a good one), an actress with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a long-running exercise TV show, where she encourages the ladies to sweat it out while wearing leg warmers redolent of Jane Fonda’s workout tapes. Indeed, she’s dated: ducking into the men’s room at work, on her 50th birthday, she hears her boss, Harvey (as in Weinstein, surely, but played by Dennis Quaid) yammering about putting her out to pasture and replacing her with a younger model. The scene is staged with Quaid positioned at the urinal in extreme close-up, and filmed with a wide-angle lens to further emphasize his cartoonish performance; the film is in fortissimo for all of its two hours and 20 minutes of jackhammer editing rhythms, a techno score and broad sight gags.

In real life, Demi Moore is 61, 11 years older than Elisabeth Sparkle, though you wouldn’t say she looks it: a sex icon in her youth, Moore has also flaunted her defiance of gravity into middle age — it was a marketing talking point when she looked great in a bikini at 40 in Charlie’s Angels, at the beginning of her thus-far successful plastic surgery journey. So there’s some resonance to her role here as a woman who’s fallen into the beauty trap, tried her best, stayed fit and been told at last that her best is no longer good enough, and she gives the kind of performance that is often called “fearless,” appearing frequently nude and allowing Fargeat’s camera to survey the various sags and puckers that mark her out as mortal, if also still sexy, but also only realistically sexy. Hit by a car while watching one of her billboards being torn down (everything in the movie is clever, cruel and thematically on-point), Elisabeth wakes up in the hospital, where a very sexy male nurse gives her a tip about The Substance, a new referrals-only anti-aging technology that promises to unleash “a better version of yourself.”

The packaging of The Substance is the film’s wittiest element: it’s essentially a subscription box, with minimalist packaging in a sans-serif font, concierge-style customer service and a meal plan of nutritional substitutes that refills every 14 days. Elisabeth needs this because the “other self” that The Substance creates is, in fact, another self, a young and beautiful not-quite doppelgänger who emerges out of her spine like a snake shedding its skin; while the newer model is out living life, the older one is home in a coma, hooked up to a feeding tube, and vice-versa.

Elisabeth’s other self, Sue, is played by Margaret Qualley — of course, an IRL nepo baby, the lookalike daughter of Moore’s St Elmo’s Fire costar Andie MacDowell. Sue soon takes over Elisabeth’s old show, where the perky executives love her; it’s unclear how much consciousness the two share, but Elisabeth luxuriates in her body with an exultation beyond mere vanity, preferring a leotard with a side cutout and high panty line, and taking the aerobic choreography in a distinctly sexual direction. The show is said to rapidly become very popular.

Though Elisabeth is, presumably, meant to live vicariously, like a parent, through the sexual and professional prime of her reborn shadow-self, the two actresses are soon engaged in an intergenerational power struggle — like passive-aggressive roommates, they leave messes for the other to clean up at the end of their seven days — and it isn’t long before Sue begins to stay out past her curfew, upsetting the logistical and physical equilibrium.

As in Revenge, which made a point of ogling its underestimated party-girl mistress turned violent avenger, Fargeat’s camera is hyperattentive to how her actresses look to the hypothetical lusty male viewer. Qualley looks much different than she did in her more casual nude scenes in Claire Denis’s humid Stars at Noon, which played at Cannes two years ago; here she appears far more pneumatic. Though social media is not a significant element of the film, there’s an Instagram-filter sheen to the cinematography, and presumably some CG beauty work. (Many actresses — Moore’s age, and younger — have their own digital retouchers that work on each of their films, just like their hair and makeup people.) Meanwhile, aging is, in a sense, the ultimate body horror, a physical transformation characterized by alien and often unwelcome new physical attributes, and one scene, in which Elisabeth initially refuses to accept that a change in her body is permanent and irreversible, is particularly relatable. The effects, however, are not — Fargeat and her creature-design and practical-effects teams push Elisabeth’s transformation in increasingly grotesque directions, starting from common insecurities but exaggerating them into traits befitting a fairy-tale ogre, and eventually beyond.

Inside the Wild Ride of “Titane,” the French Body-Horror Film That Just Won the Palme d’Or
Writer-director Julia Ducournau’s film plays with the power dynamic between filmmaker and audience

Critics here have already referenced Cronenberg’s The Fly, for some repulsive looks, as well as Lynch’s Elephant Man — though the latter film is empathetic about the aesthetically incorrect, whereas The Substance aims for something like hysterical catharsis. In any case, Fargeat, unlike Sue, respects her elders; The Substance is an easy sell for any movie YouTuber who’s mildly competent at watering down feminist media theory and defining horror tropes, and the archetypal plots it clips are welcome enough: like Seconds, in which a depressed middle-aged husband is surgically reborn as Rock Hudson and tries to fit in with the ’60s zeitgeist, it concerns lifestyle as a product, and the kinds of social and financial capital that accrue or atrophy as a person ages; like The Portrait of Dorian Gray, it concerns the morality of hedonism and the vanity of the young; like Maps to the Stars — Cronenberg again! — it takes a deliberately touristic and stilted view of the entertainment industry. The All About Eve power struggle between the younger and older actress hurtles inexorably towards an outrageous climax on live television, in which, as in the charnel-house finale of Revenge, Fargeat pours out buckets of blood, like a child smearing shit over the walls of the entertainment industry and its priorities.

There are people who’ll tell you that Titane’s reputation was overinflated by the Cannes bubble, that an unprepared audience just happy to be back in theaters after COVID allowed themselves to be overawed by a grab-bag of empty signifiers and flashy provocations, but Ducournau is a far more ruthless and far less literal-minded filmmaker than Fargeat. She goes back to the well too often with a number of running gags; many of the cheap shots don’t make a ton of sense; even two hours into the movie, looped dialogue is meant to clarify points that should surely be obvious by now. I had fun with it, but its ballyhooed outrageousness feels reverse-engineered from a very legible outline.

I’m pretty out of step with the consensus here, I guess — I outright hated Emilia Pérez, “the breakout movie of Cannes 2024” according to Vulture. Every so often, the French director Jacques Audiard gets the idea in his head to make a movie about a community of which he has no organic knowledge — Dheepan, which won the Palme in 2015, is about the immigrant experience in France; Paris, 13th District, which played here in 2021, is about multiracial Millennials, with their fluid sexualities — and his curiosity about the milieu invariably stops where his preconceptions and storytelling instincts begin, which is very close to the beginning. Emilia Pérez is his most touristic conception yet: A musical, set in a backlot version of Mexico, about the cartel wars and the trans experience. 

Zoë Saldaña plays a lawyer tasked by Manitas, an infamous brutal drug lord, to facilitate his gender transition — the film uses male pronouns for the drug lord, though at the start of the movie the bearded Manitas has been taking estrogen for two years, and has breasts large enough to convince Saldaña’s character of the seriousness of the mission (though no one else seems to have noticed), and female pronouns once Emilia awakens from her gender-affirming surgeries. (In full facial bandages, she looks at her new vagina with a compact mirror, and weeps tears of joy.) Manitas, Emilia says, became so violent as a defense mechanism, to disguise her essential vulnerability in a brutal society; masculinity is a prison and so is Mexico, I guess, but her surgery allows her to reinvent herself. (The role is played throughout by Karla Sofía Gascón, a Madrid-born transgender actress who’s a good bet for Best Actress if Demi Moore doesn’t get it.)

Audiard seems to see this material as a fable and transness as a metaphor — not a particularly original or deep one — for reinvention more generally. A largely frictionless plot hinges on the traces of the old Manitas that remain in Emilia: Having left her old life behind, she returns to Mexico to be close to her children (in a very Mrs. Doubtfuego touch, she does so under the nose of Manitas’s former wife, played by an unconvincingly vampish Selena Gomez), and starts an NGO to locate the bodies of desaparecidos, in penance for the things she did as her old self. Even moreso than The Substance, this is a film about a bifurcated personhood, but one predicated on a gender essentialism that’s insultingly simplistic, especially when sung. (“Penis or vagiiiiiiiina?”) The choreography is undistinguished, and the cinematography applies a harsh, gritty, saturated, blue-black sheen to every set except for the home where Emilia lives as a woman with her children, which is bathed in a golden glow. Plenty of thoughtful people like this movie, but none of them are making any claims for its cultural specificity — not something I normally require from my risky and indulgently stylized auteur projects, I suppose, but from the window of the press lounge where I’m writing this I can see a yacht that Restoration Hardware rented and furnished as a promotional activation for this Cannes, and I wonder who’ll be on it the next time it floats out onto the Mediterranean. It occurs to me that here in Cannes there can sometimes be a disconnect between the identities and experiences that confer prestige on a work of art, and the people to whom that prestige flows.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.