The Substance Has Never Met a Real Woman

The Substance

The Substances (Coralie Fargeat, 2024) intention, it seems, is to use body horror to shine a light on the impossible beauty standards, self-hatred and fear of ageing that women are faced with every day. (As though any of us could possibly forget!) It actually ends up being openly hostile to women, with one-dimensional characters that emphasise only our pettiest, most self-centred qualities and a real sense of punishment that faces our beleaguered anti-heroes, obsessed with preserving their own beauty at any cost. 

Aside from the sound design and impressive monster work — both of which are astonishing — there’s little to recommend in this gruesome and genuinely mean-spirited film. 

Demi Moore plays former actress Elisabeth Sparkles, who has hosted a Jane Fonda-like exercise show for decades. But now she’s on the wrong side of 50 – a capital crime for women in Hollywood – and the producers of her show (led by a bizarrely over-the-top Dennis Quaid) are eager to get some new blood. So it’s fair to say that her self-esteem isn’t exactly at an all-time high. 

After getting into a car accident, a stranger slips her a mysterious note along with a video ad for “The Substance,” a chemical product that claims to produce a better, younger you. The way it works is simple (perhaps even intentionally vague): the user injects themselves with a chemical that causes their cells to divide in a way that literally creates a new version of themselves, and the two entities trade consciousness for seven days at a time. The temptation is too much for Elisabeth to resist. In the end, Sue (Margaret Qualley) emerges fully formed from Elisabeth’s spine.

The biggest issue of The Substance is that it doesn’t contain a single female character who actually feels like a reallife woman. While it’s normal for women to feel regret during the ageing process and idly muse about how great it would be to be young again, Elisabeth and Sue don’t have a single thought in their head that isn’t related to maintaining their beauty.

It does a huge disservice to women – especially older women – to suggest that over the years they haven’t acquired any other hobbies or interests beyond their own appearance. It comes across as insulting. And what’s more, the film is staged like a brutal and unforgiving morality tale, punishing both Elisabeth and Sue for their vanity.

The film’s only saving grace is its technical work. The sound design makes even neutral noises disturbing, creating an auditory onslaught from which there is no escape – even if you close your eyes to avoid the more gruesome images, that doesn’t help you tune out the tearing and crunching and horribly squelchy noises. 

As Elisabeth’s body degrades and Sue takes matters into her own hands, the film utilises more involved prosthetics, which are expertly employed, giving life and spirit to the transformed women. But despite these impressive achievements, they’re unable to disguise the real ugliness of the story – how much it seems to despise women.

Audrey Fox is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic and a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, with bylines at, /Film, The Nerdist, Looper, amongst others.