Aaron Schimberg in his third feature film, A Different Man, sets himself into a new category of filmmaker who is one to pay more attention to what he is doing with his challenging and unique body of work. This film is going to divide audiences into two camps – disabled and allies and everyone else who will feel extremely uncomfortable with the scenes that take us on a bumpy ride of our internal ableism and limitations we put on ourselves in fear of response of the “abled.”
Schimberg worked with actor Adam Pearson on his earlier film (Chained for Life). Adam is perhaps best known or recognized for his neurofibromatosis which creates tumors along the nerves and creates bone deformities and enlargement. For Pearson specifically, this presents a disfigured face. He also had a role in Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer) in 2013.
In a chat with Talkhouse after Chained for Life was released, Schimberg shared that “the progressive catch-all term for someone like Adam (and myself – I was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate) is facially different. Both Adam and I dislike the term – as he says, all faces are different.” The term both Adam and Aaron use is disfigured so we will be using that for this article.
I use this here to explain two things about the rest of this review. Number one, the filmmaker has a disability and understands it on a level that someone without a disabled person in their life, won’t fully understand. Like any other unique experience that sets you aside from the “norm” of cis-White privilege, you can have empathy but never really understand the language and nuance in the same way as a person living it. Second, I have multiple sclerosis and interpreted the film through this lens.
A multi-layered science-fiction allegory that really serves as dark comedy about an aspiring actor Edward (played by Adam Pearson and Sebastian Stan) who does an experimental medical procedure to transform his experience. Enter his new attractive neighbor who is a playwright (played by Renate Reinsve of Worst Person in the World), who writes him the perfect part, only to be too late for him to accept the role.
Dissonant juxtapositions such as a fire truck bumping up against an ice cream truck outside the apartment building play into the ludicrous nature as well as a score by Umberto Smerilli that keeps you on your toes. Schimberg brings in influences such as David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, Von Trier’s Dogville, and Melancholia, with a bit of Cronenberg’s sensibility. The prosthetic work is fantastic and lends notes of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
The film’s write-up at Sundance was about a “man’s desire to self-actualize” and I would argue that it is equally about one man’s journey to overcome his internal ableism living in a world where he is clearly disfigured and then able to mask taking on an invisible nature of who he has built his self around.
A friend at the screening pointed out that each of his films has titles for earlier films about deformed people and is in his way forcing a lesson in disability representation on film and its history through his carefully selected choices of titles and films referenced within. A step further in A Different Man, is the carry-through with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, as characters are reading it throughout the movie and even reference Edward’s blue eyes at one point, his “success” of becoming a handsome man with the right eye color to fit in.
In the end the film circles around how society sees you as a disabled person and how you reflect that onto your own psyche creating a tortured identity based on fear of reaction. How Edward transforms into what he thinks society wants from him only to learn that who he was was right all along and that bending to societal pressures instead of learning to love who he is has led him into a gothic nightmare.
One of the truly divisive moments is with the video Edward proudly shows off to his new neighbor which is an office video on how to talk to your disfigured co-workers. In it are many of the actors that Schimberg cast in earlier films. The scathing comedy hit my disabled funny bone as there is such a fine line between allyship and performative corporate “accessibility” in every part of our lives and that video sums it up perfectly. Others in my audience who don’t live with a disability were offended and thought Schimberg was making fun of the disabled. But it was making fun of how people have to be trained to be civil or kind to those who don’t look like them and the silliness of our society in applauding efforts to just not be a jerk. The tiny microaggressions of living with a part of your identity that doesn’t fit society’s norms are the heart of it.
Killer Films is a producer on the project and the film is A24 so a theatrical release seems likely soon.
– Melanie Addington (@MelAddington)
2024 Sundance Film Festival; Aaron Schimberg; A Different Man