All About 'The Substance,' the Controversial Body-Horror Film About Beauty Standards That's Shocking Cannes

It received a 13-minute standing ovation at Cannes—and was also called the "grossest" movie at the festival.

margaret qualley and demi moore at the premiere of the substance
(Image credit: Lionel Hahn/Getty Images)

The harm of unrealistic beauty standards placed on women is nothing new, but one film that premiered in competition at Cannes Film Festival this year is shocking audiences with its grotesque depiction of just how horrific they can be for aging women.

French filmmaker Coralie Fargeat's second feature The Substance, a body horror film starring Demi Moore and Margaret Qualley, premiered on May 19 and is one of the most divisive, conversation-starting films at this year's festival. According to Deadline, the film received a 13-minute standing ovation, the longest of the festival thus far, with praise largely geared toward Moore. It's also generated initial reactions ranging from "bad" and "misogynistic" to a "brilliant feminist Hollywood satire," with reviews noting how "magnificently tasteless" it is and calling it "the grossest movie at Cannes" in the best way.

demi moore in the substance

Demi Moore as Elisabeth Sparkle in The Substance.

(Image credit: Mubi)

It's no wonder The Substance is generating headlines. In the film, Moore (who made her Cannes debut this year) plays Elisabeth Sparkle, an actress-turned-TV-workout-instructor who gets fired from her network because they feel she's aged out of her role. Furious at the decision, relayed to her by a network boss played by Dennis Quaid, she undergoes a procedure available in the film's surrealist version of L.A. called The Substance. After hooking herself up to various disturbing injectibles and tubes, her skin splits down her spine and a new, younger version of herself (played by Qualley) appears. While she doesn't entirely replace Elisabeth, the shinier model goes and gets a job at her old TV network, and, as Variety reported, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-inspired story about ageism, beauty, and the ways women are meant to self-hate plays out.

demi moore in the substance body horror movie

Demi Moore as Elisabeth Sparkle in The Substance.

(Image credit: Mubi)

Fargeat, who last released the rape vengeance thriller Revenge in 2017, has been said to not hold back in her body horror depictions, and individual scenes have particularly sparked conversation. In one, Moore and Qualley face off in a supposedly very bloody fight in the nude.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Moore spoke in a press conference about how the film "pushed [her] out of the comfort zone," but felt its abrasive imagery and vulnerable scenes were "necessary to tell this story."

margaret qualley in the substance

Margaret Qualley as Sue in The Substance.

(Image credit: Mubi)

She and Fargeat attributed the film's no-holds-barred approach as necessary to illustrate its central theme, or what they described as a critique of " the male perspective of the ideal woman."

"I don’t know any woman that doesn’t have an eating disorder or some other thing that they do that does violence to their bodies," the writer/director said as she explained that she needed to portray the film's events "in an extreme way because I think this violence is very extreme."

While festival-goers can't seem to stop talking about The Substance, audiences will be able to see it for themselves sometime later this year. In the U.S., the indie streaming service/distributor Mubi has acquired it for release. Mubi has also already dropped a teaser, which sees Elisabeth in a luxe waiting room as she watches an ominous video about the sci-fi cosmetic surgery that promises a "better version of yourself" with "one single injection."

Whenever it does get a release date, we can't wait for this one to make our skin crawl.

Sadie Bell
Senior Culture Editor

Sadie Bell is the Senior Culture Editor at Marie Claire, where she edits, writes, and helps to ideate stories across movies, TV, books, and music, from interviews with talent to pop culture features and trend stories. She has a passion for uplifting rising stars, and a special interest in cult-classic movies, emerging arts scenes, and music. She has over eight years of experience covering pop culture and her byline has appeared in Billboard, Interview Magazine, NYLON, PEOPLE, Rolling Stone, Thrillist and other outlets.