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A Different Man

Wacky American indie sets out to create a modern-day, metalinguistic Beauty and the Beast with real facial disfigurement as a device - from the Official Competition of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival


Edward (Sebastian Stan) lives in New York with a severe facial disfigurement. His face is covered with large tumours, leaving his eyes and his mouth barely visible, and his speech distorted. He earns money by taking part in public campaigns against deformity prejudice. He dreams of a much bigger career and also of a girlfriend. His gorgeous Norwegian neighbour Ingrid (played by Norwegian actress Renate Reinsve) is very fond of Edward, and displays some vague affection: she offers to squeeze a blackhead on his nose and gives him facial cream. A touching Beauty and the Beast moment. The man becomes infatuated, however the sentiments of the woman do not seem to go beyond warmth and sympathy.

Unbeknownst to Ingrid, Edward is undergoing a groundbreaking surgical treatment in order to remove his abnormal growths. One day, the horrific lumps miraculously peel off and Edward magically becomes a super good-looking man, in some sort of reserve Kafkaesque metamorphosis. He pretends that Edward died and starts a brand new life as a “normal” man called Guy. He lands a role playing Edward in a theatre piece written by Ingrid, based on her own experience with her presumably dead neighbour. During the performance, Guy wears a prosthetic face that makes him look exactly like his pre-metamorphosis self (Edward). The beast-turned-prince actor becomes romantically involved with Ingrid. The story is as weird as it sounds: the plot firmly slips into metalinguistic silliness as Guy impersonates Edward for his playwright lover in different contexts (including in bed, during an extremely awkward and poorly staged sex scene).

It gets even more complicated. Oswald (played by British actor Adam Pearson, who has a real-life deformity called neurofibromatosis, and a real-life face very similar to prosthetic one in the film) is an old friend of Edward, and he seems to know Guy’s real identify. He auditions for the play hoping to impersonate his “late” friend. The hugely charismatic Pearson is the biggest highlight of the film. He injects the story with a sense of irony, self-deprecation, British humour and indeed beauty (he jokes that “blokes in Britain don’t even notice” him, while Americans have a much stronger reaction), even if the plot developments surrounding his character are extremely clumsy. Pearson singing on stage is a real delight. The real-life poster boy of facial disfigurement is a courageous campaigner and also a talented performer with manifold skills.

Despite providing Pearson and other actors with real-life deformities with a platform and striving to educate viewers about how to deal with such people (through the campaigns in the beginning of the film), A Different Man falls into its own traps. Aaron Schimberg’s third feature film desexualises people with severe facial deformities. Edward and Oswald never have sex, and barely ever kiss a woman (except for a little peck during the theatrical performance). Surely if we are meant to accept these people we should also be prepared to witness them love in full splendour? Adam Pearson has dated several women throughout his life. Ultimately, the disfigured Brtiosh actor serves as a mere supporting character who helps the able-bodied protagonist to reach his full potential. He’s some sort of magical freak.

A super ambitious and confusing ending including a stabbing, a prison stint and a freak accident fails to add anything relevant to this nonsensical fable. Ultimately, this is a very ambitious movie, overconfident of its abilities to challenge stereotypes, and with very little to say. Someone please bring back Todd Haynes’s Freaks (1932) – a genuinely radical statement for diversity and inclusion!

A Different Man just premiered in the Official Competition of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 16-02-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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