May 20, 2024

demi moore, the substance, margaret qualley, dennis quiad

Words by JANE CROWTHER


After making an impression with her feminist debut Revenge, writer-director Coralie Fargeat delivers on her promise with a provocative, gory film that sews together All About Eve and David Cronenberg body horror with instant-cult results. It also marks an explosive return to cinema for Demi Moore in a no-holds-barred role that reflects her own vocation and is a female roar against #MeToo, ageism, self-hate and dream factory objectification.

Moore plays Elisabeth Sparkle, an actress whose best years are behind her, her star on the pavement cracked, her career reduced to fitness TV shows. A still beautiful and vital woman with experience and skills, Elisabeth is considered old news by her hideous network boss – a braying, sexist egotist in flashy suits who insists ‘all pretty girls should smile’ and ogles every woman in his vicinity with unvarnished lecherousness and possession (Dennis Quaid). He’s called Harvey, of course. 

Feeling threatened by her industry and buying into its standards of beauty, Elisabeth despairs at her reflection in the mirror, prodding a body that is strong, real and lived in with disgust. Brought low by her perceived lack of value, she’s the perfect candidate for a new off-books treatment called The Substance – a complicated system of injections, liquid nutrition and spinal taps that allows the user to regenerate a new self – one younger, fitter, more beautiful than they are. Eager for the promise of youth Elisabeth injects, giving horrific ‘birth’ (to say more would spoil the treats of this bloody scream of a movie) to ‘Sue’ (Margaret Qualley) a gorgeous creature who Elisabeth can live through as she becomes an instant star and sex symbol. There are naturally rules of the treatment and if they are bent all hell will break loose, and when it does… buckle up.

Viciously funny while also being profound, The Substance taps into the fears and rages of women in and out of the public eye. ‘After 50 it all ends’ is a repeated mantra in a film that explores the perceived physical limitations on female usefulness, the complicity of women living in a society that dictates their attractiveness and the dark side of cosmetic surgery and procedures. Every time a shudder-inducing injection is made we’re reminded of botox, fillers, Ozempic, the normalised pursuit of beauty. Fargeat questions what the monstrous outcome of this might be as Elisabeth suffers for her regime, culminating in a finale that is a magnificent horror.

Qualley is wonderful as the rapacious Sue, a wide-eyed ingénue who will literally step on the sisterhood to get ahead, but the film is Moore’s – elegant, vulnerable, bonkers in a role that requires her to strip naked both physically and emotionally. Must-see cinema with bite that will make viewers question how critically they look at others as well as in the mirror.


Coralie Fargeat’s The Substance starring Demi Moore, Margaret Qualley and Dennis Quaid is screening at the 77th Cannes Film Festival. It will be released by MUBI later this year