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Aaron Schimberg A Different Man Review

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A Different Man | 2024 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

A Different Man | 2024 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

The Face of Another: Schimberg Scrutinizes the Pratfalls of Face Value

Aaron Schimberg A Different Man ReviewThose familiar with his 2018 sophomore film Chained for Life will likely notate director Aaron Schimberg’s fascination with circuitous identity crises in A Different Man. The title is but one of many ironic instances in this lightly sardonic tale about a fantastical transformation, which ultimately reveals the meaninglessness of perceived beauty—at least, only when it’s skin deep. Reuniting with his muse Adam Pearson, whose neurofibromatosis is a condition the aspect of which again informs this highly specified and nightmarishly layered plot about an actor who transforms from an ugly duckling into a swan. Ultimately, his self-perception is defined solely through the reception of others, and thus a blessing conjures a curse.

Edward (Sebastian Stan) is an aspiring actor in New York, though he often finds himself relegated to the extreme periphery of roles due to his appearance. When his doctor recommends him for a new experimental drug treatment, Edward’s distorted face miraculously sloughs off, and those around him confirm he’s now a handsome male specimen. Just prior to the treatment, he’d befriended his new neighbor, aspiring playwright Ingrid (Renate Reinsve), but he doesn’t want to associate with anyone who knew him before his glow-up. Metaphorically killing Edward, he changes his name to Guy and finds success as a real estate agent. But he sees Ingrid on the street one day and follows her to an Off Broadway theater where she’s having auditions for a play she’s written all about Edward. Using the prototype mold of his old face, Guy lands the role of playing himself, with Ingrid seemingly intrigued by the startling likeness of the mask. But as rehearsals move forward and Guy begins a sexual relationship with Ingrid, an aspiring British actor named Oswald (Pearson) pops up, and it would seem he was born to play the role of Edward.

Aaron Schimberg A Different Man Review

Initially, A Different Man dips into Cronenberg territory, creating a comedic body horror scenario during Edward’s metamorphoses. But Schimberg is really revisiting classic B-movie sci-fi tropes, films which feature miraculous plastic surgeries for their protagonists, whose navigation of a new, often improved physicality yields tragic results. Anthony Mann’s 1946 oddity Strange Impersonation, for instance, or either version of A Woman’s Face (starring Ingrid Bergman and Joan Crawford, respectively) deal with themes of how their wish fulfillments steer towards ruination. Such is the case here, where Edward adopts the new identity of a real estate agent who appears crafted from the persona of a milquetoast character from a corporate video tool about dealing with disfigured co-workers in the office. Fate, of course, tempts him with the chance to peer behind the curtain of the past he’s fled.

However, at the point where Edward becomes Guy, A Different Man breaks away from being a psychological portrait and charts an elusive course. Drawn back into the vortex, a chance encounter with Ingrid allows him to realize she’s far from the altruistic do-gooder he (and we) assumed she was. As time draws on, our perception of her fluctuates, as well, while Guy remains a stagnant focal point. As the meta monkey wrench Schimberg throws into the mix, Pearson, the offscreen inspiration, pops up as Oswald, the direct opposite of Edward/Guy as a vibrant persona who is seemingly talented at everything. As one might rightly predict, this bizarre reversal of fortune eventually becomes complete.

Much like in Chained for Life, Pierson is the man of the hour, even as the film is basically in a conversation with itself about the exploitative capabilities of art. There’s a more jarring dissonance regarding Stan’s presence and characterization, his chance at cheating the system unveiling a self-loathing he’s never forced to confront. As Ingrid, Renata Reinsve is somewhat of a detached figure, and what’s most interesting is Schimberg letting her off the hook by never realizing the disastrous impact she’s had. The avoidance of such patterned cliches allows for A Different Man to feel entirely unpredictable. But the film, like its main character, also avoids an in-depth exploration of emotional interiority.

Reviewed on February 16th at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival – Main Competition section. 112 mins.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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