Make-up or pure nature: stunning ‘A Different Man’ is about who can play a character with a disability

He leaves you stunned, A Different Man. Such a maze film as Charlie Kaufman made in the heyday of Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002) wrote, but more lived than cerebral, with a dash of Woody Allen. The film also addresses a very current issue: should a character with a disability also be played by an actor with the same disability?

Director Aaron Schimberg’s film is already a highlight of the 74th competition of the Berlinale; things must be strange if he doesn’t find a Dutch distributor. In A Different Man Edward (Sebastian Stan, with latex mask) suffers from severe neurofibromatosis: his face is hidden by benign tumors. Edward wants to act, but is too insecure; he pines in a Hunchback of Notre Dame-like manner for his neighbor Ingrid (Renate Reinsve), a playwright. When his growths disappear thanks to an experimental treatment, he pretends that Edward committed suicide and calls his new, handsome version Guy. The alleged suicide inspires Ingrid to write an off-Broadway play about her friendship with Edward. Guy, now a successful real estate agent, presents himself for the leading role wearing a latex mask of his old face. He was born to play Edward, he believes.


Edward/Guy starts a relationship with Ingrid, but a rival emerges: Oswald, played by Adam Pearson, an actor with real neurofibromatosis. With his sparkling bonhomie, the amiable Oswald plays the handsome Edward/Guy off the board with ease. Isn’t the character Edward a bit too passive, he asks Ingrid casually. “Oh my god, I fell into the trap of making him a victim,” she realizes. And so her play soon becomes more about Oswald than about Edward. And that turns out to be just the beginning.

There’s a lot to chew on A Different Man: a doppelgänger motif, a Beauty and the Beast motif and of course the issue of representation of people with disabilities. Director Aaron Schimberg fears that the emotional nature of this issue will lead to even fewer film characters with disabilities, he tells the press at the Berlinale: too risky. Schimberg has a personal hang-up with such roles: he has a cleft lip. “I was born with a cleft palate. That has been corrected, but to some extent, as you can see. For me, the question is always to what extent that deformity defines me.” To a limited extent, the gap between the awkward Edward and the exuberant Oswald suggests A Different Man.

In his previous metafilm, Chained for Life (2018), Schimberg noticed how fraught the issue of representation is. In it, a beautiful actress tries to make a connection with her deformed co-star, also played by Adam Pearson, the eloquent British spokesperson for people with neurofibromatosis who previously appeared in the cult film. Under the Skin (2013) by Jonathan Glazer.


Schimberg: “An actor with make-up is controversial, but so is an actor with a real deformity. Then they accuse you of exploitation. So I thought I’d just put both in one film: make-up and pure nature. See what happens then.” He doesn’t mean that as a statement, he continues. “A good film makes the audience think for themselves, a great film changes their thinking forever.”

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Actor <strong>Cillian Murphy</strong> in ‘Small things like these’, the opening film of the Berlinale.</p><p>Photo Shane O’Connor</p><p> ” class=”dmt-article-suggestion__image” src=”×96/smart/filters:no_upscale()/s3/”/></p><p><em>A Different Man</em> is at least good, possibly great.  If only because he continuously keeps an eye on faces with neurofibromatosis, says Adam Pearson in Berlin.  “During the filming in New York, it took me some time, as always, to find my safe corners in the city.  Bars and restaurants where they have become accustomed to my face.  My entire life I have been confronted initially with overcompensation or removal.  I don’t blame anyone for that, my appearance is so new and alarming that it automatically triggers a fight or flight response in the brain.  But if people see me two, four or ten times, that surprise and curiosity will automatically fade away.  So it’s okay for people to stare at faces with neurofibromatosis for long periods of time, like in this movie.  The longer the better.”</p><p><dmt-util-bar article=