Early in The Substance, the lifespan of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is distilled into a few brisk minutes. Concrete is poured around a brass mould, the star is unveiled to fanfare, and the years pass with little care for preservation. Locals march across the name Elisabeth Sparkle while cracks begin to show. Stars fade in Coralie Fargeat’s stylish but vapid second feature, but when they’re dying, they blaze bright—blindingly so.

Elisabeth (Demi Moore) is an actress coasting on the fame of her youth as the host of 80s-style aerobic exercise programme. She’s unceremoniously fired at lunch with a studio exec named Harvey (get it?), played with pitch-perfect sleaze by Dennis Quaid. Elisabeth accepts the termination quietly while Harvey gnaws at shrimp, the squelch of grisly tearing flesh heightened by the visceral sound design. From the outset, Fargeat draws the gender divide, illustrating a world where women must be pristine and perfect forever, while men can be disgusting and powerful. 

Fargeat creates an empty chasm of a protagonist. Elisabeth has no friends, no love life, no dreams. The city of Los Angeles is just as empty, crafted as a gaudy blend of seedy alleys and sterile rooms, where the emptiness of luxury is strictly divorced from the rust and mud of reality. Even Elisabeth’s apartment, a cavernous penthouse sparsely furnished, feels like a performance of normalcy as opposed to the home of a genuine person. 

Lost without purpose, Elisabeth is recruited for an underground procedure known as the Substance, which promises “a better version of yourself.” She injects herself with a mysterious liquid, causing her spine to split open and a younger woman, Sue, (Margaret Qualley) to slip out. While Elisabeth is unconscious and Sue takes over, there are rules they have to follow: they must keep each other fed, extract spinal fluid every day from the dormant self to “stabilise” themselves, and switch places every seven days “without exception.” 

Sue, with her good looks and charisma, assumes the life that Elisabeth once had, taking over her hosting gig and shining as Harvey’s “gorgeous, little angel.” The Substance vowed to make Elisabeth’s life better, but when she wakes up, she’s stuck bearing witness to Sue’s rise. Fargeat is unsubtle in depicting the ghosts of youth that haunt Elisabeth, seen in her apartment’s ceiling high portraits of her younger self in skin-tight leotards, and a billboard of Sue outside her window. Sue’s unconscious body lying in her bathroom is another of those perennial tormentors. But Elisabeth doesn’t actually reap any benefits from the substance—she doesn’t share a consciousness with Sue, or experience her glamorous life—which calls into why she would agree to the devil’s bargain in the first place. 

Fargeat builds on themes of a woman’s place in patriarchal society that began with her uncompromising debut Revenge, but the results aren’t as convincing. The director’s approach is blatant and shallow, parroting tired conversations about youth and beauty as currency, especially in a place as looks-obsessed as Hollywood. Never heard that one before—it goes as far back as Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve and beyond. There’s no doubt there are men telling young women they should smile more. But it’s as if Fargeat wants you to believe that the film is revealing illuminating truths when it makes repetitive callbacks to Elisabeth’s misogynistic and ageist encounters.  

But for all of its emptiness, you can’t help but marvel at the ungodly package those ideas are delivered in. Fargeat helms a Cronenbergian work of body horror pushed to its most frightening, exhilarating limits. The film’s final act seems to go on and on—for better and for worse—but when you think the film has reached its disgusting peak, it goes one step further in a twisted symphony of blood, guts and breasts. Terrific prosthetics and make-up warp Elisabeth’s body into an revolting spectacle, and Moore is at the mercy of it all in a fearless and ferocious performance. Fargeat is undoubtedly a director with a distinct vision, taking enormous swings that will knock you out, but once you excavate under its gruesome skin, it’s evident that The Substance is hollow at its core.

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