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Cannes 2024: The Substance, Visiting Hours

At this point in Cannes, exactly half the competition titles have premiered, which means that audiences are now primed to engage in a classic festival ritual. If you subject viewers to six days of some of the most demanding cinema on the planet, then suddenly confront them with a stylish and funny (yet sufficiently academic) horror film in which Demi Moore and Margaret Qualley are forced to share the resources of one body—and that film has a lot of clever framing, a pulsating electronic score, a fair amount of skin, and a special thanks in the credits to the many extras who got covered in blood—those viewers tend to go a little nuts. In a few months, expect people to complain that Coralie Fargeat's "The Substance" was overhyped at Cannes. But what the hell, I'm here. I'll join in.

Moore stars as Elisabeth Sparkle, a one-time movie star who has aged into being an aerobics goddess. Now she's aging out of that, at least according to her grotesque and piggish boss, pointedly named Harvey (Dennis Quaid), who is photographed in some spectacularly unflattering wide angles. Even before we meet Elisabeth, her career trajectory is wittily relayed in a montage that shows her Hollywood Walk of Fame star being laid, dedicated, and then subject to the ravages of time until someone finally splatters it with ketchup.

After a car accident, Elisabeth learns of a mysterious product called "the substance." It unlocks DNA and divides cells. (This process, illustrated with an egg yolk, is the first thing viewers see in the movie, to the extent that it might be confused with a production company logo.) Elisabeth will be split in two: She'll be both herself and an ostensibly better version of herself. The only catch is that she'll have to switch to the other body every seven days, with no wiggle room on timing.

Elisabeth's preparations for her first injection make for a genuinely great scene. The instructions from the makers of the substance are sparse (but come in helpful all-caps), and Moore's character is forced to figure out on her own how to use the various packets and medical supplies in the kit. The transformation, as Elisabeth, nude in a white-tiled bathroom, experiences the sensation of having her eye double in its socket and her spinal column open to allow a birth, is legitimately inventive. Elisabeth's double emerges and looks at herself in the mirror—and instead of Moore staring back, it's Qualley. The Qualley version of the character, who starts calling herself Sue, quickly auditions to be Elisabeth's replacement on the aerobics show.

You could criticize "The Substance" as having little that's new. The deferred-aging premise is at least as old as "The Picture of Dorian Gray," and the body-horror effects owe a lot to David Cronenberg, whose own new feature, "The Shrouds," is set to premiere at Cannes tomorrow. But "The Substance" has its own way of handling psychology and metaphor. (The menstrual analogies—the calendaring of the body swaps, the ill-timed bouts of bleeding—are manifold.)

Fargeat's previous feature, "Revenge" was mainly notable for an impressively drawn-out cat-and-mouse chase through a house near the end, but "The Substance" allows her to paint (in blood) on a much bigger canvas. And while Qualley has proved her facility with smiley malevolence before (in this fest, no less), Moore has never had the opportunity to tear into a role like this. The only logical move is for the Cannes jury to give them a shared best-actress prize and force them to mail it to each other every week.

For a less intense, more grounded story of female companionship, the parallel festival Directors' Fortnight showed a new movie by Patricia Mazuy, a French filmmaker who really ought to have more of a reputation in the United States. (She has not had the greatest luck with U.S. distribution, but Film at Lincoln Center hosted a mini-retrospective in 2019.) In the early 1990s, Mazuy directed an episode of "All the Boys and Girls of Their Time," the celebrated eight-part TV series that also gave us one of Claire Denis's strongest movies and the basis for Olivier Assayas's "Cold Water." Mazuy's most recent feature, "Saturn Bowling," took an outlandish plot—a detective on the trail of a serial killer is unaware that the killer is his half-brother—and turned it into what was read as a serious critique of violence and masculinity.

"Visiting Hours,starring Isabelle Huppert and Hafsia Herzi, is the most straightforward of the Mazuy features I've seen. Alma (Huppert) and Mina (Herzi) meet at a prison in Bordeaux where both their husbands are serving time. Alma intervenes when an officer tells Mina—who has traveled a long way to be there—that she must return the next day. Soon, Alma is making arrangements for Mina and her children to move in with her and for Mina to take a job in the laundry room of her imprisoned husband's clinic.

Their relationship is forged with honesty. In the ice-breaking stage of meeting people, the gregarious Alma makes a habit of telling them up front why her husband in prison, just to get it out of the way. Mazuy said at the Q&A that one of her goals was to show off a light side of Huppert that is not often seen in movies. However, Mazuy's film is also interested in exploring the limits of generosity and loyalty. Much as the women might try to live together—Alma jokes that she's Mina's "bourgeois pal"—they each have aspects of their lives that the other can't perceive clearly or fully. "Visiting Hours" is gentle in the broad strokes but smartly judged and tough-minded in its subtleties.

Ben Kenigsberg

Ben Kenigsberg is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. He edited the film section of Time Out Chicago from 2011 to 2013 and served as a staff critic for the magazine beginning in 2006. 

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