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You—a young woman in your early thirties—are positioned between careers, between relationships, between interests, just generally drifting from one arena of knowledge and experience to another. One day, amidst the sheer vagueness of your circumstances, the face you’ve come to accept as your own is submerged. And just like that, another emerges: one that details the tensions and incredulities of your psyche with such subtlety that this new set of features seem to belong to you just as much as the others did…

At least one of your grandmothers seems inconvenienced by your change. Addressing you as ‘dear’ instead of calling you by name when she sees you in person, she further mumbles, with the combined disapproval and resignation of one who’d always suspected time had something like this in store for her, ‘I don’t even know what to call you with that face”. Online, however, where you announce your metamorphosis with updated photos for all your online profiles, the feedback is…revealing. Upon presentation of an entirely new face, you’re hailed as a goddess, or asked if you just got a haircut. What can this mean?

All the thrill of the new is there, wound round with the velvet of familiarity—or assumed familiarity.

Needless to say, the experience speaks to the adjusted expectations of social media scrolling, the allowances we make for photographic filters and the transformational power of a camera angle. But is the ready response of yeah, same same, yet different a symptom of apathy, of distraction, or evidence of a sort of semiotic overstimulation; overwhelmed by signs, have we simply ceased to absorb them, permitting the surfeit to blindly switch places, or even switch themselves off…? 

The act of analysis

Scenarios such as these, devised and presented with a phosphorescent charisma in Melisa Liebenthal’s EL ROSTRO DE LA MEDUSA, hint at what it means to exist as both a living unit of data, subject to analysis, and a fellow processor of data. Such themes are initially explored at an institutional level. We first meet our protagonist, Marina, at a doctor’s office—this is the eighth she’s consulted about her facial transformation. The doctor is wary; according to the parameters of the medical examination she’s just conducted, the patient before her as healthy as any person in their early thirties can expect to be, and merits no further analysis or treatment.

Marina’s adamant efforts to continue embodying a version of herself that has lost its referent—the contemplation of old family photos, attempts to renew her government ID, an interlude of living as though nothing has happened—constitute opportunities for the past to claim her, whether as an extension or a repetition. Eventually the future is offered its own chance to hail her as a novelty, as she updates her profiles, adopts a new name, and pursues a fling.

Well-paced debates

At moments the past does manage to claim, to bridge, seen for instance in the gaze that vibrates between Marina and her maybe-ex boyfriend as they greet each other for the first time after her transformation. All the thrill of the new is there, wound round with the velvet of familiarity—or assumed familiarity. Still, they’re both flinching a little, as if suspecting the presence of a trick or a trapdoor. Ambient sound plays a part here, with the feathery fluttering of breath is the only possible soundtrack for such an encounter; anything else would destroy its immediacy.

EL ROSTRO DE LA MEDUSA highlights an element of frenzy (as well as possible futility) in our attempts to fix points of specificity amidst individual and social maelstroms of concealment and display. It’s a state of affairs that demands we remain attentive to, and even periodically renew our associations with the faces we present to others, just as we maintain and renew our other records of identity. It’s overwhelming, and almost too exhausting to think about—but then this film winks, and all my faces wink back.

Helen Oyeyemi is a Prague-based author of ten books, the most recent of which are “Peaces” (2021) and “Parasol Against the Axe” (2024)

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