Coralie Fargeat made a splash with her debut Revenge. But she was only standing in a puddle, endearing niche corners of the global cinephile community to her cinematic bloodlust for sexually violent men and gore-horror filmmaking. With her second, The Substance, she’s fully submerged in the ocean and making waves.

Meet Elisabeth Sparkle, a Demi Moore-esque A-lister (played by Demi Moore) whose stardom has long since faded, leaving her, to great displeasure, in the instructor’s seat of a glam morning-fitness class called “Sparkle Your Life.” We learn about her iconic career through a cleverly designed timelapse that opens the film––a bird’s-eye view of her Hollywood Walk of Fame star being minted, premiered, adorned, celebrated, surrounded, stood on, passed, ignored, and eventually forgotten. 

Much more displeasing to Elisabeth is a phone call she overhears with Harvey, the show’s batshit, ludicrously evil, executive-type producer (played by an electric, hysterical Dennis Quaid) who screams things like, “We need her young, we need her hot, and we need her now!” into the phone with a sick smile like he’s ordering someone to be killed. When we meet him (and regularly throughout) Harvey’s shot in a fish-eye lens, standing as close to the camera as possible with his face contorted into an ogre’s grimace as he open-mouth gnashes on juicy shrimp. It’s disgusting; it’s great.

Harvey is, of course, saying those things about Elisabeth’s replacement, which he’s convinced they need due to Elisabeth’s age (over 50). It takes about 15 minutes and a car crash to get to The Substance, a new drug her post-crash doctor pitches––one that supposedly spits out “a better version of yourself” and is easy to administer at home. But once it’s introduced, the rest races by for better and worse. 

Elisabeth decides to give it a shot and is overwhelmed with joy when she suddenly sees herself in the body of Margaret Qualley (who is still Elisabeth, mind you). Per the genre, it isn’t long before that joy boils over into a nauseating surfeit, ensuing grotesque obscenities calling into question both the company’s intention and the procedure’s cellular nature.

Unfortunately, the faceless corporate entity behind The Substance only ever communicates in sterile packaging and ominous one-liner philosophies, giving incomprehensibly simple instructions like “you are one” and responding to concerned questions with scripted lines such as “respect the balance,” the gratingly cheerful AI voice speaking to them strictly undiscerning of the situation.  

Qualley and Moore are naked for a large part of the film, lending their figures––twisted, contorted, dragged, deformed, depicted in extreme close-ups, and thematically sexualized––to a movie that’s making some very strong, unpopular claims about a woman’s body image in the 21st century. Fargeat’s overarching perspective on Sparkle’s hellish descent couldn’t be less sexualized, depicting naked beautiful people in situations so upsetting one wouldn’t possibly be turned-on. It’s reminiscent of Scarlett Johansson’s choice to make her nude debut in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin

Whether Fargeat is going straight for the jugular of plastic-surgery culture or offering a more complex view––one that targets extremes, carnivorous corporate messaging, and the regressive, self-loathing mindsets incepted in people, opposed to the people incepted––is unclear. At the very least, she posits that the modern, early-onset trend of wanting work done is a byproduct of a toxic capitalist culture that seeks to make us sicker (or at least convince us we’re sick) to turn a profit.

Yet, at the very least, she makes it abundantly clear that women are in a unique body-image situation in which they did not put themselves, the pressure to look as young as possible for as long as possible an erroneous, power-induced expectation born over millennia from the tar pits of the male gaze (see: Harvey, who is named thus for a reason). It’s possible that nuances between the two aren’t present enough for viewers to make that determination. Regardless, one thing is true: Fargeat does not believe that fear-based cosmetic procedures will help people reach their acme, physically or mentally.

That nuance, if there, might just be lost in the difficulty of keeping up. A bizarre, virulent body horror that is as insanely violent as it is disturbing, The Substance is not for the faint of heart. (Hell, it’s the most Cronenbergian film in a competition year with Cronenberg.) Where the film ends up––even by the one-hour mark––is far beyond where it begins. As the pace hangs at a perpetual breakneck speed, the story has no choice but to evolve like lightning.

The aspirations are admirable, but at 140 minutes it’s overlong, arriving at a pretty natural end before another act begins and we launch into what suggests an unwarranted second film. (Still, one that also ends up being good.) Its influx of extreme, ever-changing stylization, The Substance can be tiresome and overstimulating. Usually, though, it’s a repulsive, impressive thrill.

A review of The Substance isn’t complete without a nod (or 20) to Benjamin Kracun, whose eclectic, highly expressive cinematography makes the film a must-see for camera people. These choices––most of which feel thoughtfully tailored to their moment or effect––range from lenses so wide you can see all four walls of a room to those so tight or uniquely charactered that all you can make out, and thus feel, is a psychedelic visceral texture. It looks like it took years to prepare, much less achieve. And if Kracun’s credits reflect a man in action, his three-year gap between features––seven for Fargeat, who envisioned this project from the ground up: writing, producing, directing, even editing––suggests as much. 

All elements of craft in Fargeat’s sophomore film are remarkably executed. Whether one likes their aesthetic or how they’re stitched together is something else, but there’s no arguing with execution. The production design is magnificent, each room a crisp, colorful vision that bears various striking styles. Take, for instance, the safety orange hallway shot with an extremely wide lens, posters and magazine covers uniformly lining the wall. Or the 2001-coded white-tile bathroom, only one of the many Kubrick references within.

If The Substance is the new indication of what’s to come in Forgeat’s career, one can only hope her next film arrives sooner than seven years.

The Substance premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival and will be released by MUBI

Grade: B+

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