Berlinale 2024 review: 'A Different Man' - a tale of transformation that entertains but falls short

Sebastian Stan in A Different Man
Sebastian Stan in A Different Man Copyright Berlinale
Copyright Berlinale
By David Mouriquand
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Sebastian Stan and Adam Pearson give it their best in a modern fairy tale about appearances that could have been elevated by embracing previously teased daring beats.


What constitutes true identity in the Western world?



The way people respond to and value you?

How much of yourself would you sacrifice for acceptance?

These are some of the questions at the heart of A Different Man, a New York-set fable with a few surprises up its sleeve.

It follows Edward (Sebastian Stan heavily caked in impressive prosthetics), a facially disfigured man who aspires to be an actor. When people see him, it’s either one of two things: avoidance or overcompensation. To make matters worse, his acting gigs limit themselves to cheesy PSAs tailored for offices overly keen to promote inclusion. That, and his dingy apartment ceiling is leaking.

When he meets his new neighbour Ingrid (The Worst Person in the World ’s Renate Reinsve), things seem to look up. The aspiring playwright takes an interest in him and, without her knowing, Edward begins a new experimental procedure that doctors promise will heal his face.

Lo and behold, the drug works, and clump by sizeable clump, his face gives way to a more conventionally attractive mug (Stan, still, but minus the prosthetics). Flabbergasted that the drugs worked, he adopts a new identity: Guy. And with that new name, he also decides to retire his old self by telling the plumber that Edward has died. Ingrid overhears this, and gets artistically inspired. 

While Guy is discovering the perks of Western beauty, she writes a play about her “dead” friend. When he eventually discovers that the off-Broadway show is looking to cast the lead role, Guy auditions. After all, he should be perfect for it, since it’s based on the real him... Right?

If all of this sounds like a confusing contraption that raises a few red flags, fear not. Writer-director Aaron Schimberg does an excellent job at easing the spectator into a set up that is not as problematic as it may read. The magic potion cure trope isn’t misused and there’s a great deal about A Different Man to admire - not least the make-up work from Mike Marino. What impresses the most is the promising merging of a postmodern, Kate Plays Christine meta aspect about the nature of performance (the film does kick off on a film set, after all) with some decent scenes of body horror and a hint of psychological thriller. It all seems to announce a Twilight Zone -indebted exploration of how beauty as a concept has been toxically quantified, and therefore warps society’s values when it comes to the notion of attractiveness.

Schimberg does successfully touch upon these themes, as well as ethics behind the possibility of exploitative representation, especially through the character of Ingrid and her evolving ideas regarding her play. This happens when she meets Oswald (Adam Pearson), a soon-to-be actor who has the same physical disfigurement as Edward - with an added dose of easy charisma.

Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis, is excellent in the role, but it’s hard not to feel like his character isn’t just set up as a foil for Guy, in order to make him feel the disconnect between the outer-self he has become and the inner-self he now sees reflected back at him.

Pearson and Stan do keep A Different Man afloat (the wonderful Reinsve is a little side-lined here in terms of character development), and some decent dark comedy keeps the momentum going. It’s just a shame that the body horror and the thriller elements are progressively abandoned, and more could have been mined with the arrival of Pearson’s character, which teased some Dostoevsky rivalries / doppelgänger avenues. What it ultimately leads to is, somewhat disappointingly, a hollow conclusion that doesn’t betray Schimberg’s good intentions, but doesn’t manage to make A Different Man different enough for it to be truly thought-provoking. And while it may be somewhat unfair to demand the film to profoundly tackle a multitude thorny issues, what lacks here is the daring verve he teased in the set-up to fully embrace a properly madcap and distinctive satire.

An entertaining film about transformation? Certainly.

A transformative cinema experience? Less so.

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