A Different Man Berlinale Review: You Can’t Run From Who You Are

The tale of the disfigured individual, demonized by its society and pitied by the audience, is one that’s been retold many times in cinema. From The Elephant Man (1980) to Wonder (2017) to the here frequently referenced Beauty and the Beast (1991), it’s understood that these people are simply victims of their genetic code—or whatever other means made them disfigured—and that if only people could see past that, they would see what a beautiful, kind soul they truly are. A24’s A Different Man turns this on its head. What if that person is given the opportunity to shed their disfigurement and become as attractive as, say, Sebastian Stan, only to reveal that the person underneath is much uglier than any disfigurement might’ve made them superficially appear?

It’s a premise that could make for a great short film. A quick subversion of expectations and inherent biases within ourselves via a surprising punchline to this classic story. If not for writer/director Aaron Schimberg’s willingness to keep pushing further and further, deconstructing the kind of story we know this to be until both it and the life of Sebastian Stan’s character are wholly picked apart. Identity is endlessly complex, a mix of both the perception of others and your own self-image, the outer appearance and the personality beneath that, what you express outwards and feel inwards, but most importantly, it’s not something that simply is; it’s constructed by all the aforementioned factors, by or against your will. Aaron Schimberg is aptly aware of that and makes the identity of Sebastian Stan’s character his plaything, mentally torturing him endlessly to both our frustration and delight. He’s well aware of the kind of pity an audience will feel towards a character like Edward (Sebastian Stan) practically by default and uses it against them. He further questions why these kinds of stories have been retold over and over, why they’re traditionally told the way they are, and maybe most importantly, who’s really being helped through these depictions. There’s even more to this, as the film becomes beautifully meta at a certain point, in ways that I’d rather not go into too much here.

Aaron Schimber subverts seemingly every trope under the sun and delivers a masterclass in directing, as he balances tones perfectly in this darkly comedic drama about a man who gets to live the life he always wanted, only to be upstaged by another man with the exact same facial disfigurement that he felt was always holding him back from greatness. Wyatt Garfield’s 16mm cinematography underlines the grotesque beauty of the movie, and Umberto Smerilli’s score makes sure that every tonal beat works as the movie jumps from comedy to drama, into moments of genuine body horror, and sometimes even a slight sci-fi feel, thanks in large part to the music accentuating those moments to perfection.

Sebastian Stan’s transformation in this movie goes far beyond some simple—not at all simple, extremely impressive—make-up effects, as he gives what is easily his best performance to date as the shy and reclusive man Edward and the man he becomes in his new life, who’s fighting with the kind of masks we can’t simply take off. Oswald, the man with the exact same facial disfigurement, who despite that is endlessly charismatic and immediately loved by everyone—something Edward thought impossible—is played by the brilliant Adam Pearson, who takes over the screen as soon as he’s introduced, just like his character. This trio of powerhouse performances is completed with Renate Reinsve’s very interesting take on the girl next door who dreams of becoming a playwright,in what I believe to be her first English-language role. It’s hard to imagine that we won’t see much more of her soon.

Sadly, despite all that, the movie does run out of steam a bit eventually. With about 20 minutes left, the movie starts to move in circles, with one scene after the other feeling like it’s the final one, only to keep pushing further. Admittedly, the final note the movie ends on is brilliant. I just wish the last couple steps towards that had been tightened up a bit, because so much of it is fantastic, but you can feel the movie losing focus for a bit before it hones back in for the final punchline.

Nairon Santos de Morais
Nairon, 21, from Berlin, is a film student by day, and a writer for FlickLuster by night. Movies and video games are his two big passions in life. As long as they are being kept separate, please no more awful video game adaptations.

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