Hannah Strong


The Substance – first-look review

A fading star signs up for a strange medical procedure in Coralie Fargeat's vacuous attempt at a Hollywood body horror.

It’s no secret that women are held to a higher standard than men in every aspect of life, but perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Hollywood, where to visibly age, gain weight or not fit the very narrow prevailing beauty standard is to be deemed worthless. There are plenty of films that wrestle with this issue – Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve, Black Swan, Inland Empire and The Neon Demon are just a handful – which means it’s becoming an increasingly saturated market, and filmmakers need a novel idea if they’re going to stand out from the crowd.

To her credit, writer/director Coralie Fargeat has one of those. Elisabeth Sparkle (Demi Moore) is an ageing star who decides to take a chance on a mysterious medical procedure after she’s unceremoniously fired from her job as a television fitness instructor due to her age. ‘The Substance’ promises to create “a better version of yourself” – and so, after collecting her mail-order package from a locker, Elisabeth injects herself with a suspect yellow fluid and ‘Sue’ (Margaret Qualley) slithers forth from a large incision on her spine.

The pair are instructed by the otherwise anonymous company to follow a certain set of rules. Only one of them can be conscious at a time (while the other lies on the bathroom floor with a feeding tube plugged in) and they have to switch every week to avoid irreversible side effects. To ‘stabilise’ the process, Sue must inject herself with Elisabeth’s spinal fluid every day during her conscious week. The two are supposedly one, but they’re also completely separate, not sharing each others’ thoughts, emotions or memories – the week one is in control is lost time for the other, and they have to piece together what’s going on in the other’s life from context clues. It’s not clear what Elisabeth is getting out of the arrangement, since she benefits in no way from Sue’s instant success.

Sue immediately takes over Elisabeth’s old TV job, working with her skeezy boss Harvey (Dennis Quaid playing a Weinstein type, because subtext is for cowards) and buys herself a new wardrobe. Slowly but surely she begins to want more time in her body, which starts causing issues for Elisabeth. Fargeat shoots Qualley in the same manner she shot Matilda Lutz in Revenge, with slow panning close-ups over her body, often naked or scantily clad. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such, but the camera is leery, obsessive, hypersexual – “Younger, more beautiful, more perfect” than the body that birthed her, it makes sense that Sue would be keen to flaunt her assets. But it’s less clear why Fargeat herself is so intent on highlighting Qualley’s undeniable beauty in a film supposedly critiquing the film industry’s obsession with it. If Fargeat’s intention is to make the audience complicit, she replicates an existing history of horror’s exploitation of women’s bodies rather than turning it on its head.

Moore goes for Most Acting rather than Best Acting as Elisabeth, at one point just lifting from Glenn Close as Alex Forrest, while Qualley has something of Patrick Bateman in her dead-eyed, narcissistic gym bunny who starts to push her luck. We don’t learn anything about either character beyond the most cursory details, and Fargeat keeps the world around them generic (it’s set in the present day or near future, where presumably televised workout shows have become popular again). This isn’t in itself a problem, as it’s very clearly meant to be Los Angeles, but in stripping all personality and specificity from the world and characters, it’s hard to have any substantial investment in what’s happening.

Elisabeth starts binge eating, realising that if she does, it will impact Sue’s body. This continues a few times, and it doesn’t get any funnier, with grotesque scenes of food debris shown around the apartment, and Sue referring to Elisabeth as “gross, old, fat, disgusting”. Given the whole ongoing Ozempic hullabaloo and rumblings of a return to heroin chic, the food scenes don’t play as funny. They just read as sad – as though the idea of being fat truly is the worst thing that Fargeat can imagine. Similarly, Fargeat suggests a cliched link between internal ugliness and external ugliness, rather than interrogating (or taking to task) the systems that make physical perfection so desirable to begin with. There’s one interesting moment, when Elisabeth contemplates killing Sue to escape her, and tells her unconscious body “You’re the only lovable thing about me” but it’s difficult to feel that there’s a true connection between Elisabeth and Sue given that they are never shown to have one previously.

Eventually the whole film spins out into pure body horror, complete with a hulking creature who resembles Abzorbaloff from Doctor Who. This got big laughs from the Cannes crowd, but its appearance read as deeply tragic to me, the sad conclusion to a woman who doesn’t know how to be anything but a celebrity, and given Hollywood’s long, horrific history of mistreating people with physical disabilities, it’s a strange choice to play the character for laughs. The film borrows from The Picture of Dorian Gray, Carrie, Death Becomes Her and Scanners without ever coming close to having an original thought, even with enough fake blood to put Kubrick’s Shining elevators to shame.

Instead, The Substance regurgitates old talking points about Hollywood’s obsession with beauty and fear of ageing in a sterile facsimile of Hollywood without adding anything new or interesting to the conversation, and then goes for broke in a third act it hasn’t come close to earning. It’s certainly a showy movie, and the props team have worked their socks off to bring to life some grim creations, but more than anything the film felt deeply depressing – a reminder of how Hollywood denigrates anyone who looks a little different from the standard pushed by social media and popular culture. But replicating images doesn’t automatically make them subversive, and The Substance’s execution of its supposed themes is as shallow as the very thing it’s critiquing, a stab at feminism without actually saying anything other than “women are held to excruciating beauty standards”. There’s no compassion here, and certainly no catharsis – just more hagspoiltation and a sense we’ve done this all before.

Published 20 May 2024

Tags: Coralie Fargeat The Substance

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