THE SUBSTANCE. The Two-Body Problem [REVIEW]

Coralie Fargeat either went too far in “The Substance” or ascended to an artistic Olympus.

Maciej Niedźwiedzki

22 May 2024

Showbiz has no mercy. After turning fifty, not even a cabinet full of awards, a spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, or additional plastic surgeries can help. The body is no longer the same, with wrinkles here and there that Botox can’t cover. They might be invisible from a distance, but they are all too noticeable in close-ups. The owner of the TV station (Dennis Quaid) has no doubt that Elisabeth Sparkle’s (Demi Moore) time has passed. The ratings for her morning fitness show are starting to decline. The charm of the sex symbol has faded, and the star is no longer able to maintain her audience, let alone attract new viewers. Termination, a cordial thank you for twenty years of collaboration, and a firm “goodbye, don’t ever come back.”

“The Substance” by Coralie Fargeat might be a reflection on aging, passing, generational change, and the ruthlessness of the entertainment industry. However, it is certainly a wild body horror film that makes no aesthetic compromises, focusing on bloody physical transformations, fully conveying the pain of falling nails or skin piercing during suturing. These are the most common examples. On the other end of the spectrum, we find bodily evolutions reminiscent of Cronenberg’s “The Fly” or the bloody birth of xenomorph babies. You name it, it’s there.

The plot concept of “The Substance” is truly compelling and thoroughly executed. What’s it about? The titular substance enables duplication and the creation of a second, better version of oneself: younger and more attractive. Thus, the new version of Elisabeth becomes the alluring Sue (Margaret Qualley). Wonderful, although there are a few major problematic hooks. The fundamental one is that both entities constitute a single organism. There is no “me” and “her,” but always entirely “YOU.” This principle causes very serious, mutual complications. The second obstacle is the necessity for weekly changes. Every seven days, one organism enters a dormant state, connected to an IV drip, so the other can enjoy life, no matter how miserable it might be.


That’s enough. “The Substance” is a spoiler minefield. The less you know about Fargeat’s film, the more you’ll get out of it. The fewer stills you see, the more shocking it can be. Knowing fewer descriptions, you’ll feel disgust and repulsion even more naturally. “The Substance” intertwines awkward and significant philosophical issues, questioning the value and importance of human life, wondering to what extent we can be objectified and whether we ourselves derive pleasure from it. Fargeat’s film is also an exaggerated depiction of the media world, the cult of beauty, and the doomed clash between ethics and aesthetics.

Coralie Fargeat loves the flash of cameras, the tacky set design of TV shows. Whether it’s a studio or a boss’s office, you’ll find the right amount of glitter, pink, purple, and red as the dominant colors. The artificiality of the world depicted in “The Substance” might remind one of Barbieland in Greta Gerwig’s film, but while the pursuit of being an ideal, flawless Barbie led to comedic realms, in Fargeat’s work, they herald a nightmare.

“The Substance” reaches its peak in the first two acts when the symbiosis between Elisabeth and Sue turns into jealousy. When the planned course of action develops cracks (but not yet breaks), when mutual interests transform into an irreconcilable conflict of needs, and jealousy and revenge become the leading emotions. This can lead to nothing other than a bloody finale and a sharp genre shift, situated somewhere between shameless bravado, pastiche, and gore-driven directorial excess. Coralie Fargeat either went too far or ascended to an artistic Olympus. Either way, she definitely won in both cases.

Maciej Niedźwiedzki

Maciej Niedźwiedzki

Cinema took a long time to give us its greatest masterpiece, which is Brokeback Mountain. However, I would take the Toy Story series with me to a deserted island. I pay the most attention to animations and the festival in Cannes. There is only one art that can match cinema: football.

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