‘The Substance’ Rocks Cannes with Gross Body Horror and a Great Demi Moore Performance: Can It Win the Palme d’Or?

“Emilia Pérez” has some competition on its heels in the Cannes competition: Coralie Fargeat’s body horror feminist industry satire “The Substance” premiered at the Palais last night to ecstatic raves and applause. While I’m not sure another genre film of this one’s gross-out, dare-you-to-lose-your-dinner extremeness can take the Palme d’Or so soon after big winner “Titane” surely paved the way three years ago for “The Substance” to be in the competition at all, this return to form for lead Demi Moore would be a bold choice from the jury. 

I’d more expect to see Fargeat in contention for Best Director, as jury president Greta Gerwig might want to support a female filmmaker in a competition lacking in them. There are just four among the 22 films competing for the Palme, and at least one, “Wild Diamond,” feels like Thierry Frémaux’s effort to round that total of women directors up, as debut feature filmmaker Agathe Riedinger’s French coming-of-ager would’ve fared better in Un Certain Regard. 

“The Substance” stars Demi Moore as once-beloved actress Elisabeth Sparkle, now resigned to Jane Fonda-esque workout videos in place of a screen acting career, and for whom time has run out. She agrees to an experimental, self-induced medical procedure that produces a “better version” of herself, played by Margaret Qualley not so much as a younger iteration of Moore but as an idealized version of the best self Elisabeth wants to be. Of course, it all goes horrifically, gorily wrong. It’s Moore’s juiciest role perhaps ever, and early responses agree.

Reactions from audiences and press were wildly positive Sunday night, but the film may not land as powerfully with older pockets of the jury. MUBI has distribution rights, which means the film has an edge toward younger, genre-savvy cinephile viewers, and it lacks the forthright emotion of, say, “Emilia Pérez.” Even as “The Substance” morphs from a clinical body horror nightmare into a moving fairytale about the lengths women go to in order to be presentable and loved in a patriarchal world.

Demi Moore attends ‘The Substance’ press conference at the 77th annual Cannes Film FestivalGetty Images

Moore is also an instant Cannes Best Actress contender — though Spanish trans star Karla Sofía Gascón may have that prize locked up for the buzzy “Emilia Pérez” — as she enters what co-star Dennis Quaid said at the press conference is “an incredible third act” of her longtime career. And often in movies that never got awards notices. This is, meanwhile, Fargeat’s second feature and first time at Cannes after her 2017 horror thriller “Revenge” played elsewhere. “The Substance” could be indie distributor, production company, and streaming platform MUBI’s biggest bet yet to take a movie wide and rile up audiences everywhere in theaters.

Also premiering Sunday and perhaps less hot of a ticket was Russian Kirill Serebrennikov’s “Limonov: The Ballad,” starring Ben Whishaw in a career-best performance as the radical poet of the title. Serebrennikov has competed for the Palme three times prior with “Leto,” “Petrov’s Flu,” and “Tchaikovsky’s Wife.” The exuberant biographical odyssey follows Limonov from Moscow to Paris and New York (with 1970s Manhattan fabulously recreated on a soundstage) and back to Russia again, and it’s currently seeking a U.S. buyer. This one feels more like a Best Actor Palme contender for the work of Whishaw, who bares it all physically and psychologically in the British actor’s best leading performance. “Limonov” is Serebrennikov’s English-language debut, and the jury may want to somehow honor a dissident Russian filmmaker who’s spoken out against the war in Ukraine. Politics are ever a factor as much as the movies themselves, even as “Limonov” is more libertine odyssey than political screed. 

Cannes competition entries ranked so far by likelihood of winning the Palme d’Or:

1. “Emilia Pérez”
2. “Bird”
3. “The Substance”
4. “Kinds of Kindness”
5. “Megalopolis”
6. “Limonov: The Ballad”
7. “Caught by the Tides”
8. “Oh, Canada”
9. “The Girl with the Needle”
10. Three Kilometers to the End of the World”
11. “Wild Diamond”

Sunday, May 20

Saturday saw the premiere of the first bona fide competition hit with “Emilia Pérez,” Jacques Audiard’s queer musical fantasia about a Mexican trans woman’s (breakout star Karla Sofía Gascón) empowerment and liberation.

Audiard, who won the 2015 Palme d’Or from a jury led by the Coens for “Dheepan,” is working in a mode not far-flung from the grit of crime dramas like Grand Prix winner “A Prophet” or 2012 Palme contender “Rust and Bone.” But here, he weds those elements to an emotional story spanning Mexico City and trans identity that’s further outside his comfort zone. Selena Gomez co-stars in this wide-swinging musical as the wife of cartel crime lord Manitas, who with the help of a lawyer played by Zoe Saldana, undergoes gender confirmation surgery. Gascón stars as Pérez in a performance already getting best actress buzz. The movie careens from genre thriller to comedy and musical and queer redemption story, with emotional beats hitting the core of any audience.

Karla Sofía Gascón, Jacques Audiard, Zoe Saldana, and Selena Gomez attend the “Emilia Pérez” photocall at the 77th annual Cannes Film FestivalGetty Images

The musical comedy features songs and score by Camille and Clément Ducol with choreography by Damien Jalet (“Suspiria”), all of which wowed audiences in press screenings (where journalists burst into applause at the end credits, a rare occurrence) and earned a nine-minute standing ovation (arbitrary, but still reportedly the biggest so far) at the Palais premiere. Similarly at the press conference, attendees erupted into applause upon the entrance of Karla Sofía Gascón. Though remember the jury is not press. Still, Gerwig’s panel is likely to be just as taken with Audiard’s vision even if IndieWire’s own review wasn’t. “Emilia Pérez” is currently seeking a U.S. buyer but reps from major studios were at screenings throughout the day — Emilia Pérez is definitely the name on everybody’s lips here.

Meanwhile, not quite as buzzy but still likely to appeal to the filmmakers on the jury (including, along with Gerwig, Nadine Labaki, J.A. Bayona, and Hirokazu Kore-eda) is Jia Zhang-ke’s “Caught by the Tides.” Jia’s latest once again stars his wife and longtime collaborator Zhao Tao in a self-reflexive hybrid of documentary and fiction that finds the Chinese fillmaker looking back on 22 years of his career. Jia has already been nominated five times for the Palme, though never winning, and most recently for “Ash Is Purest White” in 2018. Zhao Tao’s performance and praise for the film could support it on the way to some jury prizes.

Coming up on Sunday are Kirill Serebrennikov’s “Limonov,” an exuberant biographical epic starring Ben Whishaw as the title’s Russian writer, and Coralie Fargeat’s body horror Hollywood satire “The Substance.”

Saturday, May 18

Friday at Cannes saw three competition entries make their debut at the Palais: Yorgos Lanthimos’ perverse triptych “Kinds of Kindness,” starring Jesse Plemons, Emma Stone, and Willem Dafoe: Paul Schrader’s “Oh, Canada,” his first competition bow in decades and starring Richard Gere, Jacob Elordi, and Uma Thurman; and Emanuel Parvu’s Romanian drama “Three Kilometers to the End of the World,” added late to the competition.

Jesse Plemons, Yorgos Lanthimos, and Emma Stone attend the ‘Kinds Of Kindness’ Photocall at the 77th annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des FestivalsGetty Images

The entire cast came out to a Croisette packed with starry-eyed passersby and ramparts of street security for “Kinds of Kindness,” Lanthimos’ follow-up to “Poor Things,” which he shot in New Orleans while the latter Oscar winner was in post-production. First reactions call the film a dark and twisted return to form for Lanthimos, who is back in “Dogtooth” and “Killing of a Sacred Deer” mode here with his co-writer Efthimis Filippou. Lanthimos has competed or the Palme twice before with “Sacred Deer” and “The Lobster,” winner of the 2015 jury prize under presidents the Coen Brothers and an eventual Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominee. “Kindness” is a divisive movie, dealing in mutilation and dark sexuality as any Lanthimos joint does, that Searchlight will roll out in theaters June 21. It’s certainly the buzziest film to drop in the competition so far in terms of its star power and pedigree, and the jurors could appreciate the film’s daring.

Reviews for Schrader’s “Oh, Canada,” starring Gere as a cancer-addled documentary filmmaker looking back on his life and the younger version of himself played by Elordi, have been mixed to negative. Gere’s performance could get notices from the jury for a possible Best Actor prize; he’s re-teaming with Schrader for the first time since their lurid 1980 breakout “American Gigolo.” Elordi was not in attendance at the Cannes press conference held Saturday morning, though Schrader spoke about a number of new projects, including a psychosexual noir he’s already written, and praised his star Gere.

Meanwhile, there are decent reviews for “Three Kilometers,” which tells the story of how a homophobic attack in a rural Romanian village spurs moral panic among the victim’s parents and neighbors. It’s a more sturdily traditional, old school arthouse competition entry that could come up in discussions for potential jury prizes.

Friday, May 17

What makes for a Cannes Palme d’Or winner? Ignore the critics, because it’s up to the jury, this year led by president Greta Gerwig, to decide.

While far-flung prognosticators might consult the ever-updating Screen Daily international critics’ grid for the writing on the walls, predicting winners is more about assessing the makeup and tastes of the jury. Screening 22 films are filmmakers like J.A. Bayona, Nadine Labaki, and Hirokazu Kore-eda, plus actors like Lily Gladstone, Ebru Ceylan, Eva Green, and Omar Sy. Though past Palme d’Or winners indicate jurors respond to emotion (like “I, Daniel Blake” or “Shoplifters”), more recent winners (“Titane,” “Triangle of Sadness”) have been less typically audience-pleasing. Last year’s Palme d’Or recipient, “Anatomy of a Fall,” was hardly an overwhelmingly emotional movie, but its smart screenplay and great performances took it beyond Cannes all the way to a Best Original Screenplay Oscar win (for director Justine Triet and her partner and co-writer Arthur Harari).

D. B. Sweeney, Grace VanderWaal, Giancarlo Esposito, Aubrey Plaza, Francis Ford Coppola, Romy Croquet Mars, Adam Driver, Laurence Fishburne, Kathryn Hunter, and Chloe Fineman at the ‘Megalopolis’ premiereMichael Buckner for Variety

Let’s look at the competition so far. Thursday night saw wildly divergent reactions to Francis Ford Coppola’s self-funded Roman-inspired epic “Megalopolis,” with critics calling it everything from overstuffed to crazily ambitious to catastrophic. An early morning, crack-of-dawn exclusive press screening at the Cineum IMAX theater in Cannes saw journalists pouring out bewildered, while the later press screening elicited the expected boos.

The jury may want to praise Coppola for his four-decade-plus-long efforts in some way, though the visually daring, VFX-heavy $120-million film starring Adam Driver as an architect trying to rebuild a metropolis into a utopia is not an easy embrace (and still lacks a distributor despite IMAX committing to showings). Plus, its female characters, including Nathalie Emmanuel as Driver’s love interest (they have no chemistry) and the daughter of his mayor rival (Giancarlo Esposito), are mostly cartoonish, which may not go over well with Gerwig’s jury. Aubrey Plaza, though, does her best with a boxed-in villain character, the flippant on-camera financial reporter named Wow Platinum who brings her typically daffy comic relief to otherwise unintentionally comic elements. The time-honored Coppola is in the competition for the first time since 1979’s “Apocalypse Now,” another ambitious epic that sharply divided viewers at the time before winning the Palme, and that could work in his favor, too.

More warmly received earlier on Thursday was Andrea Arnold’s “Bird,” starring Barry Keoghan as a father of two living in a squat in northern Kent, and Franz Rogowski as the mysterious vagabond who befriends Keoghan’s 12-year-old daughter (newcomer Nykiya Adams). Arnold has three times won the Cannes jury prize (“Fish Tank,” “American Honey,” and “Red Road”), and the jury may look to elevate her Palme d’Or position at last; “Bird” is a warmhearted crowdpleaser compared to her earlier, darker coming-of-age stories. And all three performances are among the best of the fest so far.

Barry Keoghan, Jason Buda, Carlos O’Connell, Jasmine Jobson, Franz Rogowski, Andrea Arnold, Nykiya Adams, and Frankie Box depart the ‘Bird’ red carpet at the 77th annual Cannes Film Festival (photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)Getty Images

But Cannes audiences were already in a kind of Andrea Arnold mood on day one with the premiere of Agathe Riedinger’s “Wild Diamond,” the only feature debut in competition this year and a late edition from Thierry Frémaux. The Academy ratio-shot French drama follows a hardscrabble teenage girl growing up on the wrong side of the tracks and with dreams of turning her TikTok presence into a reality TV career. The style and substance owe a great deal to Arnold’s “Fish Tank,” but the film, which has received mixed reviews, would’ve fared better in Un Certain Regard. That’s where first and second features tend to premiere anyway, and are eligible for the Camera d’Or.

Earlier in the festival, competition newbie Magnus von Horn, the Swedish director whose debut “The Here After” was up for the Camera d’Or in 2015, entered the fray with “The Girl with the Needle.” Based loosely on the true story of Danish serial killer of infants Dagmar Overbye, the horrifying black-and-white drama hasn’t generated a great deal of buzz on the Croisette so far. But the dark fairy tale’s strong visuals (also in the Academy ratio) and largely female ensemble (Vic Carmen Sonne gives an understated performance as a woman caught under Overbye’s sway) could win over certain corners of the jury for lower-tier prizes.

There’s still much to be seen, with the coming days bringing the premieres of Paul Schrader’s “Oh, Canada” and Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Kinds of Kindness.” Gerwig’s jury, meanwhile, on the day one press conference said it would be impossible not to consider global issues when making their decision. The jury has yet to see Mohammad Rasoulof’s “The Seed of the Sacred Fig,” screening at the end of the festival. But with the director having just fled theocratic Iran following an eight-year prison sentencing, he could be a major factor in the race while in competition for the first time.

Plus, remember that Gerwig is an actress as well as a filmmaker, where prior juries have often been led by behind-the-camera-only auteurs (Ruben Östlund in 2023, Spike Lee in 2021). Which means an emotional response to a film could dominate over craft, or at least be just as likely a factor. We’ll keep you updated as the competition unfolds.

Additional reporting by Anne Thompson.

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