‘The Substance’ First Reactions: ‘F*cking Insane’ Body Horror ‘Instant Classic’ Shocks and Repulses Cannes

Certainly the grossest, most way-out-there, and dare-you-to-lose-your-dinner film to debut in the Cannes competition so far, Coralie Fargeat’s “Revenge” follow-up “The Substance” premiered in the Palais Sunday night after a morning press screening that saw plenty of expected walkouts. Surely the same volume of repulsed exiters carried over to the premiere public screening, where Greta Gerwig’s jury got their first glimpse of the otherwise since-secretive film whose synopses and press notes tell you little. MUBI has distribution rights, which the company purchased just before the festival started. IndieWire’s David Ehrlich calls it an “instant classic.”

In this audacious, two-plus-hour feminist body horror, Demi Moore bares all to play a once-decorated actress quote-unquote past her prime named Elisabeth Sparkle, now resigned to Jane Fonda-esque fitness videos. But her time is finally up. She’s fired for being too old, sent packing home back to her sparse LA apartment, without prospects and only banker boxes in tow courtesy of her chauvinist producer (Dennis Quaid). A car accident and desperation lead her surreptitiously to a shadowy company that offers a Gatorade-yellow substance that, once injected, promises a “better version” of yourself. After the substance is injected, that new self is birthed in a horrifyingly explicit fashion we won’t spoil.

More from IndieWire

That “other” version of Demi’s character is Margaret Qualley, a younger and perkier iteration of Elisabeth who is now named Sue and, in the outside world, becomes a major on-camera star. But there are many rules to the substance’s process that, when violated, create chaos in this industry satire that takes its bold ideas and all-out repulsive visual fearlessness to the furthest possible extremes across this film’s running time. This is body horror of the less bloody kind, more entrails and limbs popping out where they shouldn’t. Until, of course, it isn’t.

Fargeat’s film boasts full-frontal, often deliberately unflattering nudity from both stars, but they’re asked to do much more as the movie progresses into a sickening, uncomfortably hilarious body horror nightmare amid a Los Angeles here cast as a plastic, empty world. Can “The Substance” win the Palme d’Or? It’s doubtless that Julia Ducournau’s 2021 Palme winner “Titane,” another feminist body horror movie, paved the way for Fargeat’s daring entry to be in the competition; that may not repeat so soon, but who knows.

Check out first reactions to the film out of Cannes so far.

Best of IndieWire

Sign up for Indiewire's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.