The Substance

The Substance
The Substance
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I love it when a horror is not subtle. Some of the most loved movies in this genre are. Be that as it may, for example, Scream is built on lack of subtlety and not every good horror movie has to possess such a complex metaphor lurking beneath its scares – -not even The Babadook did. There’s absolutely nothing covert about Coralie Fargeat’s second feature film The Substance: A body-horror nightmare flick that pokes at celebrity obsession with newest, youngest, hottest thing.

Does The Substance tackle this issue first? No way! Is it the boldest or most audacious attempt? Possibly not.

In “The Substance,” Demi Moore plays middle-aged fitness guru Elisabeth Sparkle who is ousted from her workout empire by Dennis Quaid’s misogynistic exec Harvey. (If those character names aren’t unsubtle, I don’t know what is.) When she hits rock bottom, she comes across a substance called just “The Substance” that upon being injected splits cells and grows new ones that model an entirely younger person in Margaret Qualley. However, they must share Elisabeth’s life alternating weeks between them with no exceptions at all. But the clone has other plans – leading to a weird fight for its own existence.

Moore delivers an equally mad performance in The Substance. She gives her all in an impeccably fearless turn playing a woman enslaved mentally by a shattered industry. Alongside her stands Qualley who exudes confidence in her beauty – something lost to Elisabeth long before Pierre Olivier Persin starts pouring goop and gore on it as creature designer and makeup artist. Qualley performs sinisterly enough; furthermore there is contrast between youth—her embodiment of youth and how she presents it—and her other half whose age also aids Fargeat’s message to sink deep inside us all: This is Moore at some of her best, but at the heart of The Substance is the idea that age must diminish beauty.

That component of the film rests on having Elisabeth’s professional destiny be determined by a truly slimy, self-obsessed and repulsive villain. Luckily, Dennis Quaid does this role perfectly in The Substance. He is absolutely repulsive with a camera shooting him face-on as he talks into his phone or stuffs his mouth with shrimp. It’s so unbearable to watch a character like this one who has such cruel and sexualized opinions about women of all ages that it was easy for us to get into Elizabeth’s head and see what she does.

Fargeat showed her love for blood-soaked final acts in her first effort, Revenge, taken to their logical end in The Substance. This is certainly not a movie for the squeamish or prudes: Organs slip out from behind; sprays of arterial blood hit an audience locked in a studio for eternity; bodies are pummeled until they break. At the same time, Persin’s unimpeachable vision teeters between farfetched and devastating during these hellishly bleak moments. These repulsive images remind each person that there is more to humanity than mere appearance or how they could please others since we all bleed red and also die eventually.

The Substance establishes Fargeat as a unique filmmaker in her genre. Her latest movie is stylized and sexy in its own way; the set and costumes are bright, garish, and rooted in a Revenge-like flair. Wide angle lens shots characterize Fargeat’s style and the constant long corridors make one feel uneasy because they anticipate that she may do something at any moment. Color also plays an important role in creating mood: blood red walls dominate the TV network’s offices; all white bathroom tile for Elisabeth presents a neutral backdrop which emphasizes how disturbing it is to take “The Substance.” In addition to this, Fargeat edited alongside Jérôme Eltabet and Valentin Feron, whose technique contributes even more to our immersion into the terrifying destruction of Elisabeth. Some of these images include quick cut frames of eyes splitting open, bodies crumbling on the floor, Elisabeth hitting herself on the head trying to wake up from a nightmare. These choices made by Fargeat along with Eltabet and Feron where rapid fire smash cuts build terror and confusion around Elisabeth accelerate the film while acting performances make it impossible for us not to watch The Substance.


When you really hear what The Substance is saying about these industries that we depend on-our entertainment, our health, our ability to connect with other people-it becomes obvious that all of them are driven by irrational fears over female aging, beauty loss or whatever will come next. Yes it is an exaggerated film but that does not mean director Coralie Fargeat was any less true – neither those who found their point obvious nor did it detract from its depiction in horribly gory terms. Tragedy surrounds Elizabeth’s story because those who get older have actually escaped death. To deliberately deprive oneself of such dignity – be it physical or mental – so as to meet some twisted expectations imposed by others is a destiny which The Substance wants to ensure no woman will ever experience again.

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