Cannes Goes Apes— for ‘The Substance,’ Demi Moore and Margaret Qualley’s Flesh-Shredding Body Horror, With 11-Minute Standing Ovation

Cannes Film Festival went apeshit for the jaw-dropping, nauseating, defiant, hilarious “The Substance” — a body horror thriller from French director Coralie Forgeat starring Demi Moore and Margaret Qualley — on Sunday night with an 11-minute standing ovation.

It’s the tale of a once-great actress (Moore) whose certain age has relegated her to a Jane Fonda-style fitness show. When she’s fired, she is offered a trial of the medical treatment the film is named for. It promises a younger, better version of herself through a cell replicating process.

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Moore takes a leap of faith and winds up on the bathroom floor, spine split open like a Christmas ham, when this new version — played by Qualley — comes slithering out of her back. Young, supple and brimming with possibilities, the two characters are allowed to coexist with one important caveat: they must trade one week on, one week off in each body.

The film is rife with metaphors about women in Hollywood, the cruelty of age and the repercussions of self-hatred. But the Cannes crowd was delighted to gobble it up — even some of the serious, cringey, hide-behind-your-hands horror. Covered in blood, ripped-out teeth, peeled-off fingernails and some of the most grotesque prosthetics in recent memory, the movie is not for the faint of heart.

The audience danced and clapped in unison to the film’s dark EDM-heavy score, recoiled in disgust at some of the most brutal scenes and laughed when appendages started dropping off like flies. It was the most animated Variety has seen the Palais at this year’s festival. Not all the shocking elements were on screen, however. “The Substance” was set to go on at 10:15 p.m. in Cannes, but started almost a half an hour late. The cast and filmmakers, who usually arrive at least 20 minutes before screenings are meant to start, were nowhere to be found at show time. The movie eventually started around 10:45 p.m. (in France, bad manners can be equally as frightening as genre films).

“It’s been a ride,” Fargeat said once the audience had finished its rapturous applause, beating the record set by “Emilia Pérez’s” nine-minute ovation on Saturday night.

Added Moore, “This is my first time to have a film premiere in Cannes. I’m so happy to be here. I’m a little exhausted — that was intense.”

“The Substance” cast also includes Dennis Quaid, Hugo Diego Garcia, Phillip Schurer and Joseph Balderrama.

In an interview with Variety, the French director discussed the film’s feminist themes, saying that body horror is “the perfect vehicle to express the violence all these women’s issues are about.”

With an undercurrent of #MeToo at this year’s festival as the movement grows in France, Fargeat hopes the film will shine even more light on the issue. “It’s a little stone in the huge wall we still have to build regarding this issue, and to be honest, I hope my film will also be one of the stones of that wall. That’s really what I intended to do with it.”

The film marks Fargeat’s Cannes debut. Her first feature, 2017’s “Revenge,” premiered at Toronto and went on to play at festivals around the world to critical acclaim. Somewhat surprisingly, Moore is also making her first appearance in the festival’s official selection. For Qualley, “The Substance” is one of two films she has playing in competition — the 29-year-old actor also features in Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Kinds of Kindness,” which premiered at Cannes on Friday night.

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