Two Wild Movies at Cannes Have Everybody Arguing

Maybe “Megalopolis” was just an amuse-bouche.

After Francis Ford Coppola’s $120 million movie polarized audiences during the first week of the Cannes Film Festival, the big swings have continued with “The Substance” and “Emilia Pérez,” two much-discussed films that are either stone-cold classics or total fiascos depending on whom you talk to here.

But at a festival where a dozen new movies arrive every day and each title is in danger of being overshadowed, there’s nothing more effective than causing a commotion.

The gory horror-comedy “The Substance” casts Demi Moore as Elizabeth Sparkle, an Oscar-winning actress who, as she ages, can find no better work than hosting an aerobics program. Even that gig is in danger thanks to an unscrupulous network executive (Dennis Quaid) who’s dead set on replacing Sparkle with someone younger and hotter. Backed into a corner, Sparkle decides to inject herself with the Substance, a mysterious fluid that promises a path to rejuvenation.

But this procedure goes several steps beyond Botox and fillers. After taking the Substance, Sparkle’s younger self (Margaret Qualley) emerges painfully from her body and sets about reclaiming the aerobics gig that the network yanked away. The only catch is that Sparkle’s younger and older selves must trade off every week, agreeing to hibernate while the other one goes out on the town. Failure to maintain that balance could have gruesome effects on their bodies, and it isn’t long before this peaceful trade-off becomes an increasingly disfiguring tug of war.

“The Substance,” directed by Coralie Fargeat, offers plenty to talk about, from Moore’s go-for-broke, bare-it-all performance to an outrageous finale that consistently pushes the line on gross-out gore. But the most spirited discussions at Cannes are over whether the movie is trenchant or skin-deep. David Ehrlich of IndieWire praised it as the best of the fest, but several people I’ve spoken to were positively angry about having watched it. Maybe any reaction is the right one when it comes to something so gleefully provocative: In a post online, the writer Iana Murray called the film “shallow” and “painfully unsubtle” but added, “i had a hell of a time though why lie.”

“The Substance” is one of the higher-rated movies on the Screen International critics’ grid, a compilation of reactions that often presages the winner of the Palme d’Or, Cannes’ top prize. But another Palme contender, Jacques Audiard’s audacious “Emilia Pérez,” has prompted nearly as much conversation and debate. A crime drama that’s also a trans empowerment epic that’s also a full-blown movie musical, “Emilia Pérez” is virtually impossible to sum up: Imagine Pedro Almodóvar meets “Sicario” meets Jennifer Lopez’s wacky visual album “This is Me … Now: A Love Story,” and you’re only halfway there.

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