“The Substance” got one of the biggest ovations at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. You also might need to take a barf bag with you when you see it.
When I say The Substance, the Demi Moore-starring movie that rocked Cannes, is bloody that’s an understatement. Take the amount of blood you think could be in this movie and double it. No, triple it. At one point during the runtime you will think you have seen the bloodiest part, but just you wait. It gets bloodier.

And yet the blood isn’t even the part of this wonderfully batshit body horror spectacular that had me almost throwing up. It’s a symphony of lurching flesh that might have you both gagging and cheering. The audience at my press screening of Cannes certainly did. We whooped, we gasped, and we clapped. It’s the grossest thing you will see all year.

Directed by Coralie Fargeat, of the also bloody Revenge, the film is at its core pretty simple. Moore, who is locked in to her role, is Elisabeth Sparkle, a fading star with a workout empire called Sparkle Your Life, where she sways her booty like Jane Fonda back in the day. But she is also miserable. Hollywood—or the fake version of Hollywood with ’80s flourishes that Fargeat has created—is casting her out. An executive not inconsequentially named Harvey and played with disgusting gusto by Dennis Quaid wants to replace her. (An early nasty moment involves Quaid eating shrimp with a close up on his mouth.)

Vanna White pays emotional tribute to Pat Sajak before his final 'Wheel of Fortune' episode Vanna White pays emotional tribute to Pat Sajak before his final 'Wheel of Fortune' episode

After getting in a car accident when absentmindedly looking at a billboard of herself being torn down, a nurse who looks like he has been run through an Instagram filter slips her a flash drive introducing her to “The Substance” with a note that says “it changed my life.” She watched the promo, which promises a new, younger, and better you by unlocking your DNA. Of course, there are warnings: You must remember that despite the two bodies you are still one person. You must stabilize yourself using spinal fluid every day. And you must switch every seven days.

Desperate, she gives it a go, retrieving her kit from a locker in a blindingly white room from a dingy address. Once injecting herself, out of her back emerges her other self played by Margaret Qualley, who is taut where Elisabeth sags. (Though of course Moore looks amazing, it should be noted.) This new Elisabeth sews up the back of her creator—Fargeat makes sure you hear the sound of needle hitting skin as well as see it. Then, calling herself Sue, the other self heads out to a casting call where she is immediately chosen as Elisabeth’s replacement. Naturally, the love and recognition means that Sue starts to abuse the rules of The Substance, forcing Elisabeth to deteriorate in the process. First, it’s one of her fingers that withers into that of a woman in her 90s. Then it is so much more.

The two halves of a whole start to bicker and rail against one another, but are constantly reminded by the disembodied voice on the other end of the phone number for The Substance that they are indeed the same person. They can only blame themselves for any indiscretion. Because ultimately, The Substance is about a woman who hates herself when she isn’t being loved and will do anything to achieve the recognition for her beauty she craves.

The messaging can be obvious at times throughout the movie, and is hammered home by the fact that it all seems to exist in an alternate, one dimensional universe where celebrity is defined by “the morning show” and no one questions when a girl shows up out of nowhere with the single name Sue. And yet the horror is so creative and over the top, you don’t mind the lack of world building. Similarly, while the script doesn’t care much about Elisabeth’s backstory, you can see the frustration in Moore’s face, as she grapples with her insecurity. One of the best moments in the entire film has no icky ooze, but is just of Moore getting ready for date, constantly changing her makeup until she ends up standing up a high school classmate still in awe of her.

Editor: Albert Owen