The Substance review – Demi Moore is game for a laugh in grisly body horror caper

<span>Demi Moore in The Substance. </span><span>Photograph: Working Title</span>
Demi Moore in The Substance. Photograph: Working Title

Coralie Fargeat, known for the violent thriller Revenge from 2017, now cranks up the amplifier for some death metal … or nasty injury metal anyway. This is a cheerfully silly and outrageously indulgent piece of gonzo body-horror comedy, lacking in subtlety, body-positivity or positivity of any sort. Roger Corman would have loved it. It’s flawed and overlong but there’s a genius bit of casting in Demi Moore who is a very good sport about the whole thing. And as confrontational satire it strikes me as at least as good, or better, than two actual Palme d’Or winners: Julia Ducournau’s Titane and Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness.

The Substance is a grisly fantasy-parable of misogyny and body-objectification, which riffs on the crazy dysfunctional energy of Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda with borrowings from Frankenheimer and Cronenberg. It’s about successful careers for women in the media and public life being contingent on being forced to keep another, older, less personable self locked away. But unlike Dorian Gray’s portrait, this can’t simply be forgotten about, but continually tended to. Fargeat saves up an awful reckoning for an odious media executive called Harvey, but in an interesting way locates her horror in women’s own fear of their younger and older selves.

Moore plays Elisabeth Sparkle, a woman who was once a huge Hollywood star but has in middle years – and still in amazing shape – pivoted to presenting a home workout TV show, modelling what are now rather quaint 80s-style leotards and leg-warmers. But after one taping, she finds that the ladies’ room is out of order and warily ducks into what appears to be an empty men’s room. Well, it is rare for anyone in the movies to go into a lavatory stall without overhearing something awful about their careers, and so it proves once more here. The loathsome Harvey, on his phone while urinating, discusses the imminent end to Elisabeth’s contract in the most ungallant way possible. This is Dennis Quaid, who is risibly and cartoonishly over the top.

Poor Elisabeth is devastated but while at the doctor’s office, a mysterious young physician secretly alerts her to a new unofficial procedure called the Substance, with which a new, gorgeously younger self can be anatomically extruded from your body in the privacy of your luxury apartment. This is Sue, played by Margaret Qualley, whose natural charm and heartbreakingly girlish vulnerability get her Elisabeth’s old job, although she has to absent herself from the studio every other week to let Elisabeth have her turn being alive. She explains to Harvey that she needs the time away to tend to her “sick mom”, which is true in a way.

It hardly needs to be said that Sue’s eerie and almost satanic perfection becomes unstuck as she forgets to stick to the instructions. Fargeat doesn’t allow us to overlook the strange and obnoxious remark made by one of the producers auditioning an eager hopeful: “Too bad her tits aren’t in the middle of her face.” It’s an omen of the horror to come and the movie’s own aghast satirical fetish for breasts themselves.

Well, the movie is ridiculous and a bit redundant towards the drawn-out end, but Moore savours the postmodern horror of her situation. In its trashiness – and, yes, its refusal of serious substance – The Substance should really be put out on VHS cassettes and watched at home in homage to the great era of home entertainment pulp and video-store masterpieces of weirdness and crassness. It reminded me of Michael Crichton’s neglected 80s pulp chiller Looker with Albert Finney as a sinister plastic surgeon. Fargeat delivers some shocks.

• The Substance screened at Cannes film festival.