Friday, June 21, 2024

“THE SUBSTANCE”

THE STORY – Have you ever dreamt of a better version of yourself? You. Only better in every way. You should try this new product, The Substance. IT CHANGED MY LIFE. It generates another you. A new, younger, more beautiful, more perfect, you. And there’s only one rule: You share time. One week for you. One week for the new you. Seven days each. A perfect balance. Easy. Right? If you respect the balance… what could possibly go wrong?

THE CAST – Demi Moore, Margaret Qualley & Denis Quaid

THE TEAM – Coralie Fargeat (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 140 Minutes


Coralie Fargeat. If you don’t know her name by now, after her 2017 debut feature film “Revenge” was released, you’re about to learn it very quickly, for she has just dropped what will likely go down as one of the most talked-about films of 2024. “The Substance” has re-confirmed Fargeat’s technical brilliance and proved to us there are no limits to how far she will go to tell us what’s pissing her off and why we should be equally as enraged. With “Revenge” it was the rape and revenge horror film told through the male gaze; with “The Substance,” themes of agism and our obsession with beauty and self-image, not just in the entertainment industry but all across life, and particularly, through a female lens, are in her crosshairs this time. Women’s bodies are unfairly subjected to public scrutiny, objectified in fantasies, and harshly judged. With “The Substance,” Fargeat feels it’s about time to rip this issue wide open and have a serious conversation about why, in 2024, we are still upholding these viewpoints through the media we consume and asking us to do something about it finally. Such a demand, though, cannot be asked gently; it must be asked with as much fury and provocation to capture people’s attention; otherwise, they will revert to the status quo maintained for thousands of years. On this level, “The Substance” might just be one of the best body-horror films of all time, as it uses genre and satire to shock, overwhelm, and compel us to action. And if it doesn’t push you that far, you’ll at least be injected with one of the most audacious, in-your-face, blood and bodily fluid-soaked sickening times you’ve ever had at the movies.

Elisabeth Sparkle (Demi Moore) was once a successful actress in Hollywood who had her time at the top of the industry’s mountain, but now, with her youth behind her, she is taping fitness instructional videos titled “Sparkle Your Life With Elisabeth.” She takes pride in her work and still enjoys it, but now, she’s being forced out of the role and asked to retire by her revolting boss (Dennis Quaid). After getting into a car crash, a doctor mentions she’s a good candidate for a new, mysterious, self-inflicted procedure known as “The Substance.” “It changed my life,” he tells her. He gives her a number to call, and she calls and has to go to a location with a security box, pick up the materials, bring them back to her home, and then follow the instructions to obtain “a better version of yourself.” The instructions may seem simple, but they become far too rigorous to follow consistently over time. She must inject herself with the first step called “Activate” once. When she does this, Elisabeth’s younger, more beautiful version, Sue (Margaret Qualley), is grossly born out of her back. Elisbaeth’s naked body is left motionless on the bathroom floor, while Sue is now free to go about her business. However, Sue must inject herself with another “Stabilize” shot every day while making sure Elisabeth is hooked up to a feeding bag for seven days so her body doesn’t deplete. On top of that, the two are not different people but are one and the same (“Just remember. You are one.”), and so for the final step, “Switch,” every seven days, the two must switch back. Elisabeth is content with this permanent life change at first. Still, when Sue starts getting afforded new opportunities that Elisabeth desires, she begins to want to stay active a bit longer than what “The Substance” demands. If the balance is not respected and misused (the instructions clearly state “No Exceptions”), it shall lead to alterations and consequences neither Sue nor Elisabeth could possibly imagine.

Opening with the image of an egg yolk receiving a mysterious injection, we watch as that egg multiplies across the frying pan, same as how Elisabeth is about to do to herself as her big yellow coat she wears many times in the film symbolizes her as this opening egg yolk. She’s an Oscar-winning actress with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which we watch as another symbol of change and decay over time, just as Elisabeth’s career and body have. There’s no room for subtlety in Fargeat’s latest film. From the examples mentioned above to Dennis Quaid’s hammy performance as a blowhard executive named “Harvey,” no doubt an apparent reference to Harvey Weinstein, Fargeat doesn’t want to leave anything to interpretation, and many might wonder why then such a blatant message movie needs to be 140 minutes long to communicate something so simple. Well, if it were so simple, would we still be willing to commit to it today? Considering how women are shown in advertising, music videos, news stations, movies, and television shows, has the norm changed all that much? Sure, there may be more awareness than ever due to new movements propelled by social media over the last few years, but more often than not, those in power (which, by all metrics, is still overwhelmingly male) say they’re going to do something to save face and then do everything they can to sit back and do absolutely nothing. When we’re first introduced to Elisabeth in her role as a pre-recorded fitness instructor, we can see how great she is at her job and how much enjoyment she still receives from it. Yet, Harvey wants a hotter, younger replacement for Elisabeth, preferably someone aged between 18-30. No matter what Elisabeth does or has done to help prepare her for this moment in her life where the world might start turning their back on her due to her age, they still do so anyway and disguise it with as much politeness and pleasantries as they can such as a bouquet of roses wishing her well, or a parting gift to show her how much she meant to them over the years. It doesn’t matter to them that she’s still just as capable, gorgeous, and intelligent as she was when she was younger. To them, her time is done, and now, all that’s left is for Father to have time to do his thing, just as he does for all of us.

There’s an inevitability of aging that Fargeat isn’t lamenting with “The Substance” but embracing it as a necessity. Our obsessions with beauty and self-image through our vanity and self-hatred have poisoned and conditioned our minds into believing something that isn’t true, and it’s a journey Elisabeth/Sue must discover for herself if she is ever to change throughout the film. Of course, everyone wants to know they’re still desired, no matter what stage they’re at in their lives. We see this illustrated through Elisabeth’s former classmate Fred, who still has a schoolboy crush on her all these years later. Sure, he may be a bit socially awkward in their brief interactions together, but whether Elisabeth decides to meet with him for a casual drink or not doesn’t matter so much as to the why behind she may or may not. Elisabeth is consumed with self-hatred for her aging body, and eventually, that hatred turns toward Sue and how the world sees her, not realizing there is a part of the world that still sees Elisabeth with value and appreciation. When you’re younger, you see the world differently through your more youthful eyes, and people treat you differently. It’s quite natural for Elisabeth to grow jealous of Sue and for Sue to become selfishly self-involved in her newfound success that she, like the society around her, is so quick to want to forget about Elisabeth.

When Elisabeth is living her life as Sue, Fargeat’s shooting style takes on the form of what one might find in a music video or a television advertisement. The cinematography becomes flashier, there’s an extended use of slow-motion, the sound is amplified, and the sex appeal is turned up several notches. Sound, especially, carries a crucial thematic element to “The Substance” as it pummels the viewer into submission with every scene, whether it’s through an insert shot (some of the most horrifically effective usage of them since “Requiem For A Dream”), the film’s score or pretty much any physical action the character’s take. There’s so much weight behind every sound deployed in this film; it’s enough to give any theater’s speaker systems a workout. But as impactful as the sound work is, it’s the film’s practical makeup and gore effects that really help it stand out from other horror films that are out there. Like David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” the changes Elisabeth experiences as a consequence of Sue’s arrogance are faint at first but then gradually become more disgusting. By the time “The Substance” reaches its third act, Fargeat goes ostensibly hard with her themes and filmmaking in almost what feels like a game of oneupmanship with our own expectations. References to classics such as “Scanners” and “The Elephant Man” are keenly felt as Elisabeth and Sue make a final push to host a New Year’s Eve celebration on national television for all the world to see. All I’ll say is, if you thought the bloodied prom dress ending to “Carrie” was intense, you haven’t seen anything yet.

Demi Moore is sensational in the role of Elisabeth, putting herself through so much physical and emotional torment but also fearlessly going all-out in a performance you don’t typically see actresses over the age of sixty being given the opportunity to do. Because of the lack of opportunity it’s easy to say this is one of her best performances in many, many years but it would also be true regardless of whatever opportunities she has or has not been afforded. Considering the film’s themes of ageism, there’s some hope that Moore’s work here will convince studio executives to think differently about which roles to cast women of a certain age in Hollywood. Margaret Qualley continues to astound with her commitment to any role she is given. She’s ferocious and brave, and she and Moore can certainly convey a lot under heavy pounds of prosthetics. The two complement each other so well, bringing genuine emotion to the B-movie premise and helping to elevate the overall quality of the experience.

There’s a billboard just outside Elisabeth’s beautiful apartment of Sue after she starts becoming famous that almost feels like the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg as God looking down and judging society as immoral in “The Great Gatsby.” Elisabeth feels Sue is taunting her, making her feel even more insecure about her place in the world and her views on her body. Fargeat puts Sue and Elisabeth’s bodies through a lot of pain and suffering in “The Substance,” just as she likely believes women have been broken and punished with all the rules and limitations society has placed upon them. The metaphors are clear, and the horror genre has traditionally been the go-to place for storytellers to get their political messages across to an unwilling-to-listen society. Some may feel the pain inflicted on its characters is far too great, taking too much sick pleasure in its ability to shock (and yes, entertain in some cases on an almost early Sam Raimi level of camp excess), and it goes on for far too long. All of this may be true. However, those who share Fargeat’s frustrations and are willing to go along with her heavy approach to the film’s messaging may find some substance within “The Substance.”

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - A blood and bodily fluid-soaked crazy time with a B-movie premise, elevated by Moore and Qualley's performances and Target's intense direction. Incredible makeup and sound work.

THE BAD - Some will undoubtedly be turned-off by its heavy-handed storytelling, almost two and a half hour runtime and depiction of female suffering.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best Makeup and Hairstyling & Best Sound

THE FINAL SCORE - 9/10

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Matt Neglia
Matt Negliahttps://nextbestpicture.com/
Obsessed about the Oscars, Criterion Collection and all things film 24/7. Critics Choice Member.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>A blood and bodily fluid-soaked crazy time with a B-movie premise, elevated by Moore and Qualley's performances and Target's intense direction. Incredible makeup and sound work.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Some will undoubtedly be turned-off by its heavy-handed storytelling, almost two and a half hour runtime and depiction of female suffering.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-makeup-and-hairstyling/">Best Makeup and Hairstyling</a> & <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-sound/">Best Sound</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>9/10<br><br>"THE SUBSTANCE"