A DIFFERENT MAN. Beauty and the Beast [REVIEW]

“A Different Man” is a contemporary fairy tale with a clear moral, yet it’s also a truly successful and amusing dark comedy.

Jan Brzozowski

18 February 2024

Edward (Sebastian Stan) suffers from neurofibromatosis. The disease has deformed his face and pushed him to the margins of society. His life isn’t very exciting – he attends social gatherings, trying to jumpstart his acting career, and spends his free time alone in his apartment. A glimmer of hope appears with his new neighbor – Ingrid (Renate Reinsve), an aspiring playwright. Edward falls in love at first sight. However, seeing no hope for a relationship in his current health state, he undergoes experimental therapy aimed at freeing him from the disease and ensuring a new face. “The potential risk is worth the potential reward,” repeat the doctors.

If I were to guess, I’d say Aaron Schimberg’s favorite fairy tale is Beauty and the Beast, and his formative film is David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. The American director obsessively returns to themes of beauty and ugliness, societal perception, and the exclusion of those marked by illness in his work. In his previous film, Chained for Life, Schimberg showed how thin the line between art and exploitation is. Drawing on Browning’s Freaks and Even Dwarfs Started Small by Herzog, he analyzed the relationships between physically deformed crew members, portraying hospital patients, and a beautiful film star played by Jessie Weixler. In a long dream sequence, the stage partner of the protagonist, Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), magically regained his health. With a new face, he could leave acting behind and pursue his dream job – becoming a waiter. To some extent, A Different Man is a narrative extension of that dream sequence: a fulfilled dream turning into a nightmare. Edward gains smooth skin but loses the integrity of his own identity. Does appearance really determine happiness and life success? – the director seems to ask, dropping heavier bombs on his protagonist.

In the second half of the film, Schimberg introduces Oswald (again brilliantly played by Pearson). The character embodies Edward’s ambitions: he is a talented actor leading a rich social life, effortlessly making connections and inadvertently infecting people with his charisma and enthusiasm. Yet, he is deformed, suffering from precisely the same condition that confined Edward to his apartment and plunged him into complexes. Oswald gradually appropriates the space belonging to the protagonist. He takes his role in the play, takes his girlfriend, takes his old apartment. Step by step, he takes over the identity and history that Edward renounced after a successful operation, convinced that a new face means a new, completely clean slate. He couldn’t be more wrong.

Schimberg’s film, produced by the prominent studio A24, is a contemporary fairy tale with a clear moral, yet it’s also a truly successful and amusing dark comedy. In terms of character construction and sense of humor, the American filmmaker is close to Kristoffer Borgli – the creator of Dream Scenario and Sick of Myself. The comedic elements here stem from the protagonist’s life failures, resulting from his uncoordinated actions and wrong decisions. Just like in a classical Greek tragedy, Edward himself constructs the trap into which he falls – blindly convinced that he is striving for a better, happier life. Similar to Borgli’s works, our feelings toward the protagonist oscillate between sympathy and moral disgust (to the ultimate benefit of the latter). To make it even funnier, A Different Man suffers from narrative problems similar to Sick of Myself. It has brilliant ideas for individual scenes – yet as a whole, it sometimes feels too loosely structured, slightly stretched, and especially towards the end, chaotic.

In Chained for Life, Schimberg opened with a long quote from Pauline Kael, in which the American critic wrote about the screen hegemony of beauty. “It’s an extraordinary advantage for actors and actresses; beauty gives them greater expressive possibilities and a wider range of movement. The more beautiful they are, the more roles they get. They start with an incredible advantage because we love looking at them.” And indeed, nowhere is this more clearly seen than at film festivals, where gods descend from Olympus, striding confidently across red carpets. Yet: A Different Man is realized as if in defiance of Kael’s claim. Physical beauty doesn’t help Edward at all. His star fades in comparison to Oswald’s natural talent; the dreamed-of life with Ingrid permanently drifts away. External transformation doesn’t equal internal transformation – something the protagonist struggles to understand and accept for a long time. At the end of the film, he’s still the same, yet somehow different man: a beast with the appearance of a prince.

Janek Brzozowski

Jan Brzozowski

Permanently sleep-deprived, as he absorbs either westerns or new adventure cinema at night. A big fan of the acting skills of James Dean and Jimmy Stewart, and the beauty of Ryan Gosling and Elle Fanning. He is also interested in American and French literature, as well as soccer.

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