Credit: Courtesy of Film at Lincoln Center
by Michael Sicinski Featured Film

The Face of the Jellyfish — Melisa Liebenthal [ND/NF ’23 Review]

April 6, 2023

Argentinian filmmaker Melisa Liebenthal’s 2019 short film, Aquí y Allá (“Here and There”), utilized Google Earth, in-film, to pinpoint the exact location where it was made. With a sense of wry reflexivity, Liebenthal asked us to consider the interface between our ordinary lives and the collection systems of Big Data, and how at any given moment, we are subject not only to surveillance, but to methods of mapping and measurement, and to predictive algorithms. In her new feature, The Face of the Jellyfish, Liebenthal creates a fictional framework through which to explore these same topics, and the result is something we might call a comedy of phenotypic errors.

The film opens in a doctor’s office, where Marina (Rocio Stellado) explains a surreal malady. A few months ago, after a bout of swelling around her face, her features completely changed. That is, when the swelling went down, Marina had a completely different visage: eyes, nose, and mouth had all changed shape. In this early part of the film, Liebenthal shows us various digital photos that allow us to make side-by-side comparisons between the old Marina (Liebenthal herself) and the new one. The face, the absolute marker of individual identity, has mutated, and along with it, Marina’s sense of self.

Along the way, Jellyfish offers animated facsimiles of facial-recognition software readings, demonstrating how computers reduce the face to a set of lines, measures from the eyes to the nose, nose to ears, mouth to chin, etc. Although these facial scans are all as different as fingerprints, to the untrained eye, they very much look the same. In fact, when Liebenthal goes to the zoo and starts subjecting various animals (chimps, dolphins, tigers, spiders) to the same software readings, the shapes become even harder to distinguish. To us, one gorilla looks very much like another, but to gorillas, and digital analysis, the differences are quite pronounced.

The Face of the Jellyfish is less of a narrative than a demonstration of a thesis. But this arguably makes it more enjoyable. Once Liebenthal has established her premise, she introduces various social permutations, demonstrating all the ways in which being “de-faced” thwarts one’s basic existence. Marina is unable to attain a new ID; she watches YouTube makeup tutorials in order to try and paint her old face back on; her grandmother remarks, “I don’t know how to talk to this face.” The scenario is also a no-win for Marina’s current boyfriend (Vladimir Durán), who reassures Marina he finds her sexy, opening the predictable can of worms. What? You think I’m sexier now? (The Spanish word for “jellyfish,” it’s worth noting, is medusa, and while Marina’s new face doesn’t exactly turn anyone to stone, it does bring normal interactions to a grinding halt.)

With its disjunctive electronic soundtrack by Inés Copertino, The Face of the Jellyfish takes a premise one might find in a Buñuel film or a Julio Cortázar short story and titrates it through the technological conundrums of life under techno-capitalism. The mutability of identity has been a common enough trope in literature and film, from Kafka to Watchmen to Philip K. Dick. What is new here is the fact that while our DNA makes each of us unique, the hyper-tabulation of our actions, proportions, and whereabouts, reduces us all to a set of reproducible zeros and ones. Gilles Deleuze coined a new word, “dividual,” describing how each of us is seen as little more than a composite of ID numbers, credit ratings, performance reviews, and Instagram likes. In a sense, Marina has been hacked, her “features” revised as if they received an unexpected version update. The Face of the Jellyfish is a puckish, high-concept comedy that, when one further reflects on its implications, is really quite profound.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 14.