Cannes 2024 Review: THE SUBSTANCE, One of the Year's Best Genre Movies

Contributor; Mexico City, Mexico (@EricOrtizG)
Cannes 2024 Review: THE SUBSTANCE, One of the Year's Best Genre Movies

Without much expectation – because Revenge, director Coralie Fargeat's debut film, wasn’t as thrilling to me as to most genre cinema specialists – I went to a night screening of The Substance at the Cannes International Film Festival.

The decision was a very pleasant surprise, like a shot of adrenaline that lasted almost two and a half hours, given that the movie is stylish – constant closeups, energetic editing, loud sound – and quite intense from beginning to end, funny, grotesque, and over-the-top.

The Substance attracted me right away because it belongs to the traditional cinema about Hollywood and its dark and cold side (The Congress, Maps to the Stars): we see the static camera pointing at the star on the Walk of Fame of actress Elizabeth Sparkle, while time passes and her fame is forgotten. Presently, Sparkle (played in a great way by Demi Moore) works as host of an aerobics television program, although she soon learns that the suits, including her direct boss (Dennis Quaid, who also stands out as a grotesque executive named Harvey), seek to rejuvenate the show. Out of work and after a car accident, caused by a distraction linked to the end of the era of being able to see her face in billboards, Sparkle ends up knowing about the titular “substance,” something typical of sci-fi.

When a character decides to deal with anything that does the unthinkable, in this case rejuvenating her through another body (Margaret Qualley) that comes out of the original, we know that it’ll be a matter of time before everything gets out of control, even if here the rules stablished by the shady suppliers are clear, as are the labels of the required products, among them that “the substance” mustn’t be activated more than once and that every seven days you have to change to the “matrix body.”

Thus, we have in Sue (Qualley), who naturally manages to become Sparkle's replacement for the new and more sexualized version of the TV show, youth, growing fame, partying, and the attention of men. However, every seven days there’s the difficult “return to reality” and both begin to resent each other, though of course they’re one self. The Substance could be read as a metaphor for any type of addiction that causes the loss of self-control, even knowing that there’ll be consequences.

The Substance is, as you can imagine, one of those genre exponents that traces its premise very well and goes exactly to the places where it needs to go, but the important thing is that it does so in a memorable and surprising way due to its excess. Body horror reaches levels that made me think of witches (the classic idea that witches hide their real appearance in beautiful and seductive bodies as Robert Eggers recalled in The Witch); in David Cronenberg – curiously, The Substance was shown at Cannes a day before The Shrouds, his new work – and Stuart Gordon, for delving into the monstrous and grotesque side; and even in Japanese horror fantasy for its gore explosion.

If in Cannes some critics considered that it should’ve been part of the Midnight Screenings, it goes without saying that The Substance, before its inevitable arrival on Mubi in several territories, will conquer the specialized festivals, be it Fantasia, Fantastic Fest or Sitges.

The film debuted at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival

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CannesCannes 2024Coralie FargeatDavid CronenbergDemi MooreDennis QuaidMaps to the StarsMargaret QualleyRevengeRobert EggersStuart GordonThe CongressThe ShroudsThe SubstanceThe Witch

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