Screening At Cannes: ‘Horizon,’ ‘Substance,’ and ‘Emilia Pérez’

A touched Kevin Costner let loose with waterworks at the premiere of 'Horizon' and Demi Moore bared it all in the body horror satire 'Substance.' But both movies were upstaged by a musical about gender reassignment surgery starring Selena Gomez and Zoe Saldaña.

Selena Gomez in Emilia Pérez. Shanna Besson/Pathé Fims

Kevin Costner may have injected some Wild West machismo into the Cannes Film Festival this past weekend, but his olde tyme epic Horizon was no match for Demi Moore baring it all in an explicit body horror satire that reduced the venerable Brat Pack beauty to a shuddering pile of viscera. Upstaging them both: an electrifyingly audacious musical about the ruthless millionaire leader of a Mexican cartel who stages his own death to get a sex change. Sorry, cowboy: as far as Cannes is concerned, the future is female.

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Don’t think that the French completely shunned their favorite frontiersman. Costner’s Horizon: An American Saga—Chapter 1, the first installment in his four-part passion project, rode into town on Sunday night to a warm Riviera welcome. Dapper in his three-piece tuxedo at the film’s premiere, the lanky star of Yellowstone was sporting a bushy salt-and-pepper moustache/soul patch combo more befitting a haggard gunslinger than a SoCal movie star.

Kevin Costner at the Cannes Film Festival premiere of Horizon: An American Saga, May 19th, 2024. Rocco Spaziani/Archivio Spaziani/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

The sustained cheers when he entered the Lumière Theater nearly pushed him to tears. And by the time the three-hour film finished its run, as the audience rewarded him with even more applause, a deeply touched Costner let loose with waterworks that bordered on an ugly cry. 

It was certainly an expression of gratitude, but maybe also more than a little bit of exhaustion mixed with relief that his high-stakes cinematic gamble found an appreciative home in the auteur-friendly festival. Having reportedly shelled out nearly $98 million of his own fortune to bankroll the first three films, the Oscar-winning writer-director of Dances with Wolves is feeling the pinch. 

“I don’t need four homes,” quipped Costner ruefully at the press conference. “I’ll risk those homes to make my movies. I want to leave them to my children, but my children will have to live their own lives.” He’s been vocal about finding investors for his tetralogy, going yacht to yacht here in Cannes trying to raise the finishing funds. “I use to get no money to do this,” he added, talking about his film career. “Then I got paid a lot of money to do this. Now I need to pay my own money to do this.”

Time will tell if the big risk will lead to even bigger rewards. Based on this first film, it could be a long wagon ride to success. Chapter 1 is a 180-minute collection of promising but slight character introductions, a string of inciting incidents and episodic flare-ups that don’t yet amount to a story.  Costner himself doesn’t even show up until the one-hour mark.

But its canvas is wide, starting in 1859 and encompassing the Montana territory, the Wyoming territory, Western Kansas, the Santa Fe trail, and above all Arizona’s San Pedro Valley, where 150,000 acres of property deeds are being offered up for an area called Horizon. “Premium Virgin Land!” flyers announce—although they don’t mention the buyer-beware Apaches who don’t take so kindly to the “white-eyes” and their so-called Manifest Destiny. 

The quasi-starry cast includes Luke Wilson, Sienna Miller, Jenna Malone, Michael Rooker, Danny Huston, and—after a brief climactic highlight reel of Things to Come—a quick glimpse of…Giovanni Ribisi? Most of the other players are not so recognizable, and don’t quite exude the kind of star power that is guaranteed to bring audiences back. Is this how the West was won? 

Cannes loves audacity, and viewers were far more eager to fall for a feral fairy tale like Coralie Fargeat’s genre-bending The Substance. A go-for-broke Demi Moore stars as faded movie star Elizabeth Sparkle, once adored and now running on fumes as an outdated fitness guru in Boomer-era spandex outfits. Her sleazy network honcho (a loudmouth Dennis Quaid, leaning hard into every fisheye lens camera shot) wants to dump her for fresh meat. Enter a cryptic biotech fix called The Solution.

Demi Moore in The Substance. Working Title

“Have you ever dreamt of a better version of yourself?” intones an intro video on a mysterious USB-stick secretly slipped into her coat pocket. She definitely wants what it’s selling: a new you that’s younger, more beautiful, more perfect. Her body, just split into two completely separate beings. But here’s the Grimm-quality twist: each new person can only be alive for a week at a time. No exceptions. And the while one person thrives, the other falls into a dormant state. 

Injections follow; Elizabeth, naked and afraid, hits the bathroom floor. Her eyeballs bubble into doubles, her back bursts along the spinal line, and out crawls an equally nude Margaret Qualley. The new entity, who calls herself Sue, is a natural, launching a shiny new exercise show and becoming a ratings phenom. But success goes to her head, which means that Sue needs to extract more fluids from Elizabeth’s unconscious carcass in order to thrive. And as each one notices how the other impinges on their happiness, sparks fly and resentments—not to mention open wounds—fester. Brace for some seriously distorted body parts, cracked bones, decrepit appendages, and a breast popping out of an eye socket. Qualley even extracts a chicken leg from her belly button. 

“You can’t escape from yourself,” the biotech firm tells Elizabeth. “You. Are. One.” As a candy-colored metaphor for human duality, as a cartoonish update of The Picture of Dorian Gray, or as a Cronenbergian successor for parables about sins of the flesh, The Substance is a staggering adrenaline shot into the heart of moviegoers. And Moore is the reason it’s all such serious fun, delivering an impressively calibrated performance that balances broad histrionics with tender vulnerability. 

Zoe Saldaña in Emilia Pérez. Shanna Besson/Pathé Fims

The most unlikely success of the fest, though, is Emilia Pérez, the latest film from Palme d’Or winner Jacques Audiard and another in his studies of fringe people in unimaginable situations who expand their capacities for empathy, betrayal, sacrifice, and cathartic self-actualization. With stunning works like the The Beat that My Heart Skipped, A Prophet, and Rust and Bone, Audiard has spun some boldly original yarns. 

Yet nothing compares to the astonishing audacity of his latest, a Mexico-set melodrama in which a put-upon lawyer Rita Moro Castro (Zoe Saldaña) unexpectedly gets involved with a vicious crime lord Juan Del Monte (Karla Sofía Gascón) and helps him fake his death and go through gender reassignment surgery to become the titular woman he’s dreamt of being since childhood. And they all keep breaking into song.

“Mammoplasty! Vaginoplasty! Rhinoplasty!” doctors croon as a gaggle of bandaged chorines swan around in a dance number worthy of Busby Berkeley (Damien Jalet choreographed all the numbers). The whole endeavor is a go-for-broke gambit that mixes Almodóvarian longing with spit-rap ballads worthy of Lin-Manuel Miranda. (French chanteuse Camille and composer-partner Clément Ducol wrote the music and lyrics.) Virtuosic camerawork, spontaneous dancing and fluid production design all combine to make for bedazzling dance numbers.

But the unexpected emotions are what make the film so haunting—especially when it focuses on Emilia’s desire to mother the children she left behind with now-widowed wife Jessi (Selena Gomez). And, trying to absolve herself of the guilt for her violent past, Emilia starts a foundation to help people find and recover their “disappeared” loved ones who suffered at the hands of Latin America’s sicarios and cartels. 

Crime never pays, as the shuddering climax proves, even as it shows that altering your body doesn’t always exorcise inner demons. But it’s a start. “Changing the body changes society,” Rita sings at one point to a skeptical plastic surgeon. “Changing society changes the soul. Changing the soul changes us all.” 

Screening At Cannes: ‘Horizon,’ ‘Substance,’ and ‘Emilia Pérez’