‘The Substance’ is an unhinged body-horror satire

‘The Substance’ is an unhinged body-horror satire
Image: Image: Supplied by SFF

Have you ever dreamt of a younger, better version of yourself? Then try French director Coralie Fargeat’s gnarly body-horror flick The Substance (Sydney Film Festival’s closing night film), a satirical takedown of the entertainment industry that’s both hilarious and sickening.

Hollywood superstar Elisabeth Sparkle (Demi Moore) just got fired from her daytime aerobics gig on her 50th birthday. Why? Because according to producer Harvey (a delightfully delirious Dennis Quaid), she’s too old to be in that spotlight anymore. 

Elisabeth soon learns about a mysterious new drug called the Substance, which literally creates a younger version of herself named Sue (Margaret Qualley). The rules say that the two are one and bodies must be switched once per week, but Elisabeth and Sue bend these rules while very literal self-hatred begins to manifest. 

The Substance is most obviously a film that tackles the anxieties of ageing, and how that inevitable sensation disproportionately affects women. It doesn’t approach this subject matter with any subtlety, but that’s not a bad thing; by telling the story through flagrant absurdism and squelching flesh, Fargeat’s point is strengthened by its bluntness. 

The Substance
Demi Moore in ‘The Substance’ (Imaged supplied by SFF)

Despite its sense of unreality, the world of The Substance is still clearly analogous to our own. Women in the entertainment industry are subject to much higher levels of scrutiny for their looks and age than their male counterparts, with Harvey representing a hilariously gross version of the Hollywood executive who throws Elisabeth out for a new, younger version of her with little fanfare. 

It’s hardly a surprise when Elisabeth inevitably turns to the Substance. As Sue, she immediately lands a huge (and insanely sexualised) aerobics show with Harvey that makes her a star all over again. Is it any surprise that Elisabeth doesn’t want to be herself anymore, even if being Sue is ruining her life? 

That self-hatred Elisabeth feels for her true self most literally culminates in ringing visions and sickening gore as Sue tries to avoid returning to her old flesh. The film doesn’t sugarcoat the consequences of this: The Substance hosts some absolutely vile imagery across its runtime with some grotesquely impressive practical effects. Even the strongest stomachs will find it hard to resist rolling over as Fargeat invents a totally new version of ‘substance abuse’. 

Moore and Qualley play this dual role with real chutzpah, each matching the energy from the director’s chair with real bravery. Fargeat does excellent work behind the camera, oscillating between slick visuals and nightmare fuel with surprising ease; each new horror realised is equally dreadful and delightful to behold. 

Margaret Qualley in ‘The Substance’ (Imaged supplied by SFF)

That said, the film does overstay its welcome a fair bit. Though its final set piece is wonderfully deranged, it feels like there are multiple points in the final 30 minutes where the film could have ended. As a result, the insanity on display does loses some of its gusto, partly because of how long it took to get there. 

Nonetheless, The Substance is an insane body-horror flick worth seeing for its constant provocation and amusement factor, as well as its bluntly funny social satire – if you can handle the gore, of course. 

★★★★

The Substance opens in Australian theatres September 19th. 

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