‘The Substance’ Director Coralie Fargeat on How Her Feminist Body Horror Film With Demi Moore and Margaret Qualley Mirrors #MeToo: ‘We Need a Bigger Revolution’

With only her second film, Coralie Fargeat has gone from admiring body horror king David Cronenberg to being in competition with him at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Fargeat’s “The Substance,” described as a feminist take on the body horror genre and starring Margaret Qualley and Demi Moore, bows at Cannes on Sunday night, the day before Cronenberg’s latest frightful offering, “The Shrouds,” will do the same.

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Growing up, Fargeat remembers watching the films of Cronenberg — and other pioneers of the horror genre, like John Carpenter – in secret.

“They were a very provocative part of cinema that I was not allowed to watch at home. I was watching on the side,” Fargeat tells Variety on her way to the airport to depart for Cannes. “For me, it was access to a world that was so fascinating and that makes your imagination work so much.”

Fargeat made a splashy debut in 2017 with her action thriller “Revenge,” which premiered at Toronto and went on to play at festivals around the world to critical acclaim. “Revenge” follows a young woman’s journey for vengeance after she is raped and left to die by three men. Fargeat says “The Substance” shares similar themes, though its mysterious plot has been mostly kept under wraps.

However, she offers that it’s about a product that comes on the black market, called The Substance, which “allows you to generate another you that is better than every way — more beautiful, younger, perfect, everything we fantasize.” But one can only spend a week at a time in this version of themselves — or consequences arise.

Qualley and Moore play “two faces of the same coin,” Fargeat says, noting that she needed to find “two powerful actresses” to handle the film’s physical and symbolic demands.

“The movie has very little dialogue and it’s a very visual film, so everything goes through interpretation,” Fargeat says. “I really wanted for the lead character to go to a woman who incarnates a myth and a symbol in itself, as Demi does as an actress.”

On the other hand, she calls Qualley – who has another film in competition this year, Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Kinds of Kindness” — a “very instinctive actress” with “strong body language.”

Overall, production was a challenge. Ray Liotta was initially cast in the film, but after his death in May 2022, Fargeat had to pivot and recast the role with Dennis Quaid. Then there were the demands of making a body horror film – Fargeat says two particular scenes took several months of prep and weeks of shooting to get the pacing right. Though she’s keeping mum about the gory details, Fargeat teases that the horror elements are “innovative” and “excessive,” but at the same time serve the film’s feminist mission.

Body horror is “the perfect vehicle to express the violence all these women’s issues are about,” Fargeat adds.

And with an undercurrent of #MeToo at this year’s festival as the movement ramps up in France, the director says the film’s premiere couldn’t have come at a better time.

“There is still a lot of work to do and it is progressing very, very slowly, but it’s time that someone has the courage to speak,” she says. “It’s a little stone in the huge wall we still have to build regarding this issue, and to be honest, I hope my film will also be one of the stones of that wall. That’s really what I intended to do with it. To me, I still feel like we need a bigger revolution regarding all this and we are clearly not there yet.”

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