Edinburgh’s cinemas have their own, different feel. When I visit them, I’ll be writing about both the film and the place, giving you the organic experience. Film critics on the big scale can’t really cater for this, so I hope my reviews bring something extra in this respect.
Joshua Matteo's short film, Mesmeralda, merging horror with esoterica, is now out on youtube. As with his previous work Metanoia, we see youthful trans actors racing through the empty streets of a moonlit New York, haunted by symbols and stalked by a masked figure of violent intentions. Mesmeralda, as described by Matteo, is the companion piece, a 'more urban, nightmarish' vision to his earlier film Metanoia and its 'dreamlike fairy tale' style with a pastoral, Eden-like introduction. In Mesmeralda, the punk/goth aesthetic of the protagonist Elena, played by the actress Drea (formerly Emira Hajj), is one signification of a tone where innocence is dialled down, and where the viewer is already on standby for the horror to come.
More so than Metanoia, the subtext is multi-layered, the esoterica blurring with recurring intrusions from the modern world, through footage of 9/11 and the destruction of the World Trade Center. On first viewing, I saw the piece as a nightmare creation about the anxieties of trans people in public spaces. In this poetic aspect, Mesmeralda evokes in its moods the ominous dreamscape poetry of the Venezuelan trans poet Esdras Parra: 'This is my past, there is only myth within it, the earth pushes me toward exhaustion, an evil unknown to its wisdom pushes me' (Parra 297). Nightscapes of isolation and menacing locations similarly appear in Mesmeralda, evoking Parra's 'for those who are buried alive' (272):
'How long I've waited in crystal rooms
in the vast timber of the forests
watching the dark moon
along time that runs in a straight path
watching the quiet scent
of the vacant houses
in a hiding place filled with pain and tears'
In Mesmeralda, this layer of nameless terror and the glittering chambers of separation are sufficient for it to work as a study of trans/queer fear, but the imagery of 9/11-centred destruction and the film's partial location in the new Ground Zero disturbs this continuity. As Matteo himself says, the events of 9/11 traumatised him and others of his generation. We see it in the switches to and from the images of planes and the collapsing towers in different locations: a film not just about queerness and transness or the esoteric images of the Statue of Liberty and drag-queen witches as harbingers of mysteries to come. Instead, we are also being presented, obsessively, with the protagonist's trauma, having been exposed to a single violent event that binds her in turn to different trans-based characters. External disasters seep into their unconscious, exacerbating anxieties. These play out in the nighttime dreamscape.
The film begins with the character of Kitana racing across a nighttime bridge with trains rattling by. Her violent death and the disturbing morphing of a baby in her arms into a tentacled mollusc is a sign of things to come: Elena, the protagonist and witness to the event, will face her nemesis at the story's end, according to this Cthonic theme of tentacled monsters from the deep. In between is a series of violent murders of trans/queer characters, while two ambiguous, drag-queen witches appear from the lore of esoterica, Sophia and Inanna, the Sophia-figure especially guiding Elena to a party where the murderous figure is waiting for her.
Technically, Mesmeralda is a progression from Metanoia in its pacing and power: the violence is both more horrific and intense, the villain more tangible, while the protagonist Elena has the tighter, more compelling arc. As a warning to potential viewers, the scenes of violence are not for the fainthearted, but it contributes to the film's darkness and the sense of threat to the characters. Yet as with Metanoia, one of its strengths too is its embrace of trans and queer characters into a haunting, mystery world where the transness is incidental to the story-line, and where fear is not intrinsically of a recognisably transgender form but an amalgam of contextualised effects - as complex as trans people are. As a depiction of queer fear wrapped up in a nightmare, it makes for the kind of experience suggested in the title. Watch it, and be mesmerised.