A Different Man is Afraid

A Different Man composites at least a half-dozen films but nevertheless stands on its own as a wholly original paranoiac satire that pays homage to ‘70s and 80s body horror before detouring into a Woody Allen romcom by way of Charlie Kaufman. Unfolding like a Yiddish anecdote that delights in the universe’s cruel joke on its protagonist, Aaron Schimberg’s follow-up to the ambitious but unwieldy Chained for Life is the movie Beau is Afraid should have been. Using grainy 16mm cinematography, a sun-washed colour scheme, and art direction evocative of De Palma and Aronofsky’s New York, Schimberg has made a tactile, pulpy piece of cinema that would look as dazzling on the pages of a graphic novel as it does on the big screen.

Edward Lemuel (Sebastian Stan) suffers from a malfunction of the nervous system that limits professional opportunities to roles calling for “unusual” physiognomy. We meet him on the set of one such gig, an office training video, as his breathing and posture are being directed to more precisely channel a focus-grouped perception of disfigurement. It’s not the only time we’ll see Ed on a stage performing someone else’s limited idea of him. Daily commutes between demoralizing auditions and the quintessentially seedy New York City apartment he shares with a moulded ceiling are marked by choked expressions of politeness and outright jeers (and the occasional stranger who inexplicably greets him as if they know each other). The arrival of an attractive new tenant and playwright, Ingrid (Renate Reinsve), coincides with the opportunity to undergo a breakthrough procedure (the hard mechanics of which are unimportant) that will heal his tumors.

After a night on the town enjoying the perks of looking like Sebastian Stan, Edward decides to not just literally shed his face, but figuratively, as well. Months into life under an assumed identity, he spots Ingrid near a theater where she’s casting the eponymous lead of “Edward,” her forthcoming play. Both the woman of his dreams and the role he was born for seem to be his until Oswald (Adam Pearson) – a charming Renaissance man bearing our protagonist’s discarded face but none of his psychic scarring – strolls into rehearsal as if teleported from the sanitised, starkly high-def dimension of a workplace PSA. The brand of irony that foils Edward’s designs on Ingrid contextualises a reference Schimberg makes early on to Woody Allen; like one of the writer-director’s archetypal protagonists, he becomes an intellectual and romantic stepping stone, inadvertently sparking the evolution by which she falls under another suitor’s spell.

Oswald is the “magical other,” offsetting his differences through some preternatural skill or virtue; he happens to have them all: he can sing, dance, act, yodel – he even practices jiu jitsu (an activity Edward is encouraged by a neighbour to take up). Free of grievance toward normative society and its punishment of outcasts, Oswald is a “model minority” with whom others can guiltlessly interact. The charisma and success Edward believes he’d been held back from by physiognomic misfortune come easily to his relentlessly upbeat doppelganger. A running joke about Ed’s trouble learning lines (he even at one point conflates Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wilkes Booth, and John Hinckley Jr.) hints he may not be a very good actor; Oswald, on the other hand, has an eidetic memory – because of course he does! He’s a photonegative of Ed, a black hole in outer space (or stretched across a ceiling) that has absorbed all his shortcomings and inverted them into a bottomless bag of party tricks. After trying so hard to bury his past, Edward begins desperately reclaiming it – or at least the potential version of it embodied by Oswald, whose billowy florals start influencing his own wardrobe. A continued insistence on reducing self-expression to external markers is one of several cues – another being a genuflected gait which only slightly ever eases – that, though transformed into a different man, Edward is still very much the same.

Beyond its obvious counterparts in the American canon of weirdo cinema, the movie thematically resembles Phoenix, Christian Petzold’s melodrama about a Holocaust survivor who, after the kind of reconstructive surgery typical to the genre films Schimberg satirizes in Chained for Life, must impersonate none other than herself. Just as that film’s protagonist, Nelly (Nina Hoss), aligns her mannerisms and behaviour with other people’s memories of her, Edward becomes estranged from himself due to Ingrid’s reworkings of a character he inspired but that she makes clear is her creation. An idiosyncratic detail involving the forgotten origin of a gifted typewriter emphasises the Kafkian DNA disorienting both films, as well as Schimberg’s preoccupation with the line between fact and fiction straddled by art purporting to represent lived experience. When Edward powerlessly watches others deliberate how his story will be depicted, Schimberg wisely elects to use a seated POV shot, rendering him as much a spectator to the conversation as every member of the audience.

The only part of us less fungible than our identity, Ed is reminded in the film’s closing moments as yet another stranger peers directly at the character flaw rotting his core like an ineradicable patch of metastatic mould, is the impression we make on others. 

Director: Aaron Schimberg

Cast: Sebastian Stan, Miles G. Jackson, Adam Pearson

Writer: Aaron Schimberg

Producers: Gabriel Mayers, Vanessa McDonnell, Christine Vachon

Music: Umberto Smerilli

Cinematography: Wyatt Garfield

Editor: Taylor Levy

Ron Meyer

Low-rent film critic. Zero maintenance fees. Co-host of No Pun(dit) Intended; links to all published review can be found on Letterboxd (‎https://letterboxd.com/rpmeyer/)

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