Why is everyone talking about Demi Moore’s body horror film The Substance?

The film had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival

Demi Moore in The Substance. (Mubi)
Demi Moore in The Substance, which sees her play an aging celebrity who uses a cell-replicating drug to create a younger version of herself. (Mubi)

The Substance has been garnering a lot of attention following its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, with the movie even getting some Oscars buzz for lead star Demi Moore.

Horror films have often been unfairly ignored during awards season, prime examples in recent years include Us and Hereditary, but with The Substance perhaps this will change. The film received a rapturous 13-minute standing ovation after its world premiere, which has been celebrated by viewers and critics alike.

The Substance sees Moore portray fading celebrity Elizabeth Sparkle who decides to take a black market drug that will allow her to create a younger, better version of herself (Margaret Qualley). How does it do this? Well, the drug —which the film is named after— replicates cells and makes the person who takes it effectively give birth to their younger self in the goriest possible way by hatching out of her back.

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 19:  Dennis Quaid,  Coralie Fargeat, Margaret Qualley and Demi Moore attend the
Coralie Fargeat, Dennis Quaid, Margaret Qualley and Demi Moore attend the The Substance red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival on May 19, 2024. (WireImage)

Moore's Sparkle isn't completely free though, as part of the procedure she has to spend some of the day hiding away to let her younger self thrive, and the longer Qualley's character is out in the world the more Sparkle ages, rots until she is completely unrecognisable.

The body horror film has also generated a lot of discussion for featuring full-frontal nudity from both Moore and Qualley. Variety reported on Moore speaking about the scene at a festival press conference, where she said it was a "very vulnerable experience."

Read more: The most exciting films at Cannes 2024

"Going into it, it was really spelled out — the level of vulnerability and rawness that was really required to tell the story," the publication reported. “And it was a very vulnerable experience and just required a lot of sensitivity and a lot of conversation about what we were trying to accomplish."

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 19: Margaret Qualley and Demi Moore attend the
The film has generated a lot of conversation, including its use of full frontal nudity, which Demi Moore credited Margaret Qualley for helping her with by being someone she 'felt very safe with'. (Getty Images)

The actor said that she didn't feel alone in this because of her scene partner Qualley, who also appears nude: "I had someone who was a great partner who I felt very safe with. We obviously were quite close — naked — and we also got a lot of levity in those moments at how absurd those certain situations were. But ultimately, it’s just about really directing your communication and mutual trust.”

Directed by French filmmaker Coralie Fargeat, the film also stars Dennis Quaid in the role of Harvey. The part was originally intended for Ray Liotta, who passed away in May 2022. At the press conference, Quaid dedicated his performance to the late Goodfellas star.

Fargeat spoke of making the film with Variety, saying that the body horror genre is "the perfect vehicle to express the violence all these women’s issues are about" and adding: "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."

The Substance (MUBI)
The Substance (MUBI)

Critics were blown away by the film, with IndieWire's David Ehrlich writing that people who see the film "will be rewarded with the most sickly entertaining theatrical experience of the year" and that all stars should be "as fearless as Demi Moore, or as angry, or as willing to fully surrender themselves into the best role they’ve been offered since the height of their celebrity."

The critic said: "The Substance is a non-stop, go-until-you-gag epic that builds and builds and builds until it scars everyone in the audience with a deep-seated physiological aversion to the idea that we can ever hope to escape from ourselves".

Watch a teaser for The Substance

Deadline's Damon Wise praised Moore's performance, writing: "Not only does she give the furthest-out performance this side of Nicolas Cage — who raised the stakes in Cannes this year by eating a dead rat in The Surfer — she is all in for the humour and clearly totally in sync with Fargeat’s not-really-very-subtle-at-all feminist agenda."

While Variety's Owen Gleiberman wrote: "Shocking and resonant, disarmingly grotesque and weirdly fun, The Substance is a feminist body-horror film that should be shown in movie theatres all over the land."

The Substance will be released in the UK and Ireland by Mubi.