A Different Man: a discomfiting but darkly hilarious story of a man with two faces

Sebastian Stan stars as an actor whose face is transformed by an experimental treatment for his genetic condition in Aaron Schimberg’s mischievously meta doppelganger tale.

3 March 2024

By Jessica Kiang

Sebastian Stan as Edward in A Different Man (2024)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival

It takes a while before Aaron Schimberg’s A Different Man – a discomfiting but darkly hilarious story of a man with two faces, one soul and zero game – brings up the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. But once it arises, it is an acidic reminder that our simplistic ideas around physical beauty and its relationship to virtue are installed in us as children and remain largely undeveloped after that. Schimberg’s slyly unsavoury act of ethical extortion is not the first film built to invert these notions. But it’s among the first to invert them again, and once or twice more, so that you may well end up facing the same way you did at the beginning, only now you’re dizzy.

Edward (Sebastian Stan in heavy prosthetics) is a man with neurofibromatosis, a condition that causes facial tumours that severely distort his features. He is an actor only ever cast in cheap corporate videos that advise staff how to behave around a co-worker with a disability: “Invite them to social events,” suggests the friendly voiceover, “If you think they’re in distress, discreetly check that they’re ok!” Edward, miming discomfort at a water cooler on cue, tells his fake colleague he’s fine, and thanks him for asking. Disabled people are expected to be grateful for basic courtesies.

In this regard, Edward is the very model of acceptability. Meek and non-confrontational, he avoids making people uncomfortable, avoids triggering their unkindness. He lives a dingy life on the fringes of New York City and not the cool, bohemian fringes but the leaky-ceiling, hostile-neighbours sort. Still, in Edward’s building no one really bats an eyelid at his looks – less, it seems, from compassion than from familiarity and a very New Yorker-ish begrudgery that says: Sure, you got it tough on account of your face, but buddy, you don’t know my life. 

Sebastian Stan, Renate Reinsve and Adam Pearson as Edward, Ingrid and Oswald in A Different Man (2024)

But his attractive new neighbour, Ingrid (Renate Reinsve of 2021’s The Worst Person in the World) befriends him and he responds by falling for the struggling playwright to a degree she has no intention of reciprocating. Then an experimental treatment comes good, and – after a skin-sloughing scene that is maybe less horrific to anyone who has ever used a peeling face mask – overnight, Edward looks like Sebastian Stan. Eager to explore hitherto unimagined opportunities for casual sex and professional success, he calls himself Guy, claims Edward died by suicide, and moves to a better flat. 

Something, however, keeps tugging at the sleeve of his psychology. When, later, he spots Ingrid hosting auditions for ‘Edward,’ the play she has written about the man he used to be, he is compelled to try out. He gets the part, he gets the girl and then the lightning hits in the shape of Oswald (Adam Pearson from Under the Skin (2013) and Schimberg’s own Chained for Life (2018)), a dapper, charismatic, urbane charmer who has the same condition and similar facial deformities to those that Guy used to have (Pearson has neurofibromatosis in real life). Guy is confronted with the terrifying possibility, in wisecracking, confident, popular, flesh-and-blood form, that his own inadequacies have nothing to do with any condition beyond that of being a bit of a loser. 

Even with the deliberate air of staginess and tricksiness that permeates the self-consciously meta A Different Man, there is also a real mischief in the filmmaking. Wyatt Garfield’s mucky, 1970s-exploitation-inflected cinematography. The swishing jazzy cymbals and orchestral intrigue of Umberto Smerilli’s sleaze-noir score. The witty little moments that give the movie’s reality a jittery edge: Guy getting his presidential assassins confused. An ice cream truck absurdly attempting to inch past an ambulance in a narrow alley.  

And the performances surprise endlessly, as each character constantly eclipses the others in terms of terribleness. A terrific Pearson relishes Oswald’s pretentious suavity, while Reinsve brings out the bilious shades of narcissism and condescension in Ingrid’s pretty-person privilege. And Stan is beautifully, brutally ill-at-ease playing a man who has never quite believed he deserved either of his faces, right up to a tragicomic climax that, if anything, could be accused of currying sympathy for those afflicted with an excess of facial ‘formity’. Schimberg’s deliciously twisted play on duality and morality and polarity never answers whether it’s better to be despised for what you are, than admired for what you’re not. But it does impishly insist we count our blessings if we’ve never had to find out. 

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