Showing in the Un Certain Regard section at the 65th Cannes Film Festival, Michel Franco’s After Lucia (Después de Lucía, 2012) is a devastating and harrowing look into high school bullying. Following the death of her mother in a car accident, teenager Alejandra (Tessa Ia) and her father Roberto (Hermàn Mendoza), a successful high-end chef, move to a new town. Her father, however, is in a deep depression and oscillates between complete disengagement with the world and impatient anger, though never directed at his daughter.
Roberto’s relationship with his daughter is one of adoration and she seeks to protect him as much as possible. At first, she seems to have settled into her new school with remarkable ease. She befriends some rich kids and soon finds herself invited to parties as part of the group. However, things take a turn for the worse when Alejandra has sex with Juan. He films it on his phone and soon the video has gone round the school. Labelled a slut, she is soon considered fair game and all her friendships either vanish or her ostensible friends turn against her.
Not since William Golding’s Lord of the Flies has the extents of adolescent cruelty been depicted so extremely. This is strong medicine indeed, and as the dread and claustrophobia close in, the film becomes increasingly difficult to watch. Franco, now on his second feature with After Lucia, keeps his camera fixed and unmoving, trapping us as effectively as Alejandra herself becomes more and more trapped. The cruelty is truly horrible and, in one scene, literally sickening, but it is never incredible, or even improbable.
Alejandra tells no one about her mother’s death, but it’s unlikely that it would have changed anything even if she had. Once open season is declared on her then everyone is entitled to take part and the humiliations and violations escalate accordingly. Alejandra – out of love for her father – refuses to seek his help and submits with a stoicism, which soon resembles catatonia. The school authorities are conspicuous by their absence, except to threaten Alejandra with expulsion when she fails a drug test at the beginning of her school period.
Franco has created a disturbing and urgent recreation of teenage despair and what it must feel like to be the victim of almost unthinkable and casual cruelty; to be hurt in the worse possible ways to the sound of laughter and house music in the next room. It reminded me a little of Gaspar Noè’s portrayal of rape in Irreversible (2002). Like the aforementioned film, there is no escape. However, Franco keeps everything grounded in reality (without Noè’s Grand Guignol distractions or giddying camera work) and when, in its last act, After Lucia turns towards revenge, the director keeps a steady hand and never allows the film to get away from him.