Review of ‘The Substance’, the bloodiest film in the history of the Cannes Festival that smells like a cult phenomenon

Eight years after Nicolas Winding Refn premiered ‘The Neon Demon’ at the Cannes Festival, and three editions after Julia Ducournau won the Palme d’Or for ‘Titane’, the most important film festival in the world once again hosted a fable macabre about the objectification of the female body. The film in question has the intriguing title of ‘The Substance’, is directed by French director Coralie Fargeat, and has the “honor” of having become the bloodiest film ever presented in the Cannes Official Competition. Conceived as a savage exercise in gore horror, ‘The Substance’ builds an energetic satire on the aesthetic pressure to which women are subjected by the entertainment industry, and by society as a whole. The protagonist and main victim of the show is Elisabeth Sparkle (Demi Moore), the star of a television fitness program who, upon reaching maturity, and faced with the threat of cancellation of her Show, decides to undergo a mysterious treatment, called The Substance, which promises to generate “a better version of yourself: younger, more beautiful, more perfect.” The “substance” will give birth to the young Sue (Margaret Qualley), who will take over from Elisabeth in her media reign, unleashing a spiral of affinities and confrontations between the two women.


There is no doubt that ‘The Substance’ – which smells like an instant cult phenomenon– will leave its mark due to the forcefulness with which it exorcises the machismo that persists in the contemporary world, but beyond its timely social denunciation, the film contains a veritable feast of cinephile references. The main one is undoubtedly the work of David Cronenberg. From the advertisement that promotes the “substance” that Elisabeth consumes (which refers to ‘Videodrome’) to the idea of ​​a physical improvement that comes accompanied by a moral degradation (reminiscent of the way in which Cronenberg updated ‘The Portrait’ of Dorian Gray’ in ‘The Fly), everything in ‘The Substance’ seems to be twinned with the imagination of the Canadian master of the New Flesh. Although Fargeat’s search for film allies does not end there, by any means. The long corridors of the television set where Elisabeth works bring to mind the Overlook Hotel from ‘The Shining’, while the spacious bathroom in which the heroine of ‘The Substance’ searches for eternal youth shines with the white of the Timeless room from the end of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. And, beyond Kubrick, there is also the merciless portrait that David Lynch offered of the entertainment industry in titles like ‘The Elephant Man’ or the memorable diptych of female figures vampirized by Hollywood that make up ‘Mulholland Drive’ and ‘Inland Empire’. (It should be noted that Demi Moore’s kamikaze performance is reminiscent of Laura Dern’s creepy acting recital in ‘Inland…’).

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‘The Substance’ will delight the cinephile spectator: at the press screening in Cannes, the room erupted in a chorus of knowing laughter when the appearance of a supposedly beautiful, but in reality monstrous figure, arrived accompanied by the unforgettable tune of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ (a film that has been read as an epitome of male gaze). Fargeat knows how to give meaning to each of his referential nods, even the most effective ones, as when the sinister spiral of ‘The Substance’ is articulated through batteries of bloody images that bear the mark of ‘Requiem for a Dream’ by Darren Aronofsky.

In perfect harmony with the contemporary cultural climate, more akin to the cry of fury than to serene meditation, Fargeat constructs a brutal and cartoonish work that knows how to channel his indignation in images overflowing with artificial bodies, false smiles, suppurating wounds and spurts of blood. . And when we start playing the game of references, let’s celebrate the advent of ‘The Substance’ as if it were a demonic twin to Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’.

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For gore horror connoisseurs

The best: his inexhaustible visual inventiveness.

Worst: its aesthetic shock therapy can offend sensitivities.

Data sheet

Address: Margaret Qualley, Demi Moore, Gore Abrams, Tom Morton, Tiffany Hofstetter Country: USA Year: 2024 Preepremiere: Cannes Film Festival 2024 Gender: Horror, science fiction Script: Coralie Fargeat Duration: 140 min.

Synopsis: “You, but better in every way.” That is the promise of The Substance, a revolutionary product based on cell division, which creates a younger, more beautiful, more perfect alter ego.

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Headshot of Manu Yáñez

Manu Yáñez is a journalist and film critic and specializes in auteur cinema, in its broadest sense. As a child, he had the walls of his room decorated with posters of ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ by George Lucas and ‘Howards End’ by James Ivory, while today he decorates his apartment with posters from the Cannes and Venice festivals , which he has attended since 2003. In fact, his passion for chronicling festivals changed his life when, in 2005, he was commissioned to cover the Italian Mostra for the magazine Fotogramas. Since then, he has been able to interview, always for “The First Film Magazine”, myths such as Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Angelina Jolie, Quentin Tarantino and Timotheé Chalamet, among others.

Manu is an Industrial Engineer from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, as well as a Master’s degree in Film Studies and a doctorate in Communication from the Pompeu Fabra University. In addition to his reviews, chronicles and interviews for Fotogramas, he publishes in El Cultural, Diari Ara, Otro Cines Europa (writing and hosting the website’s podcast), the New York magazine Film Comment and the Colombian Kinetoscopio, among other media. In 2012, he published the critical anthology ‘The American Gaze: 50 Years of Film Comment’ and has participated in monographs on Claire Denis, Paul Schrader and RW Fassbinder, among others. In addition to writing, he shares his passion for cinema with the students of the Film Analysis subjects at ESCAC, the Higher School of Cinema and Audiovisuals of Catalonia. He is a member of the ACCEC (Catalan Association of Cinematographic Criticism and Writing) and of FIPRESCI (International Federation of the Cinematographic Press), and has been a jury at the Mar del Plata, Linz, Gijón, Sitges and DocsBarcelona festivals, among others.

In the realm of criticism, his gods are Manny Farber, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Kent Jones. His favorite directors, among the living, are Richard Linklater, Terence Davies and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and if he could revive three others they would be Yasujirō Ozu, John Cassavetes and Pier Paolo Pasolini. He is an inveterate culé, he has been in love with Laura since he was six years old, and he is the father of Gala and Pau.

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