Thursday July 18th, 2024
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Cannes 2024: ‘The Substance’ is a Shocking Gross-Out Comedy of Horrors

“This homage to body horror is destined to be the craziest film you’ll see in 2024,” film critic Wael Khairy on ‘The Substance’.

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Cannes 2024: ‘The Substance’ is a Shocking Gross-Out Comedy of Horrors

I've never seen so many people storm out of a cinema during a film's final thirty minutes. But these weren't your typical walkouts. It’s not that they hated the film, it was more likely the fact that they just couldn’t handle it. People were fleeing, covering their faces, terrified of glimpsing the grotesque violence unfolding on screen. The atmosphere was electric with panic; gasps of shock rippled through the audience. It was truly a sight to behold. Sure enough, ‘The Substance’ became the most talked about film at the festival.

Walking into the film, I knew very little about the insanity that I was about to witness. All I knew was that it was directed by Coralie Fargeat, a director with a very distinct visual language when it comes to horror. As well as the very intriguing synopsis on the official website of the Cannes Film Festival. It reads:

“Have you ever dreamt of a better version of yourself? You. Only better in every way. Seriously. You’ve got to try this new product. It’s called 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 Substance’ is hilarious, shockingly disgusting, and wildly imaginative. It's a gross-out horror comedy that will have you laughing out loud one moment and peeking through your fingers the next. It's the most enjoyable experience I've had at Cannes so far.

Demi Moore is absolutely brilliant as Elizabeth Sparkle, a fading Hollywood icon whose career is jeopardised by a misogynistic executive intent on replacing her with someone younger. The executive is played by Dennis Quaid in an over-the-top performance that makes Nicolas Cage look tame in comparison. Surprisingly, this exaggerated style perfectly complements the film's tone.

When Elizabeth Sparkle acquires the mysterious substance, she gives birth to a younger version of herself, portrayed by Margaret Qualley. Elizabeth Sparkle’s life (and body) rapidly deteriorates. The younger version is portrayed on screen with stylized photography, making her skin and curves look like a glossy advertisement designed to appeal to the male gaze. When the two versions of themselves start fighting for time (quite literally), all hell breaks loose.

Fargeat, a devoted admirer of David Cronenberg and John Carpenter, clearly pays homage to both masters with this film. The body horror practical effects are as grotesque and repulsive as anything I've ever encountered. Many will point out that the film is basically ‘The Fly’, only with a feminist twist, but the film I kept thinking of was John Frankenheimer’s masterpiece, ‘Seconds’. Both ‘Seconds’ and ‘The Substance’ depict big corporations exploiting the universal fear of ageing by promising a chance at renewed youth and vitality.

Sometimes it seems like the film prioritises style over substance (pun intended), but don't let that deter you. It fully embraces its tacky aesthetic, wearing it proudly like a badge of honour. In fact, it's very much a tribute to the ultra-violent films of the 1980s. This homage to body horror of the past is destined to be the most batshit crazy film you’ll watch this year.