If there is one film you should warn viewers beforehand about, that would be Mexican director Michel Franco's disturbing sophomore effort, winner of Cannes 2012's sidebar Un Certain Regard and a film at moments so unbearable you may well ask whether the director worships at the shrine of Michael Haneke's clinical entomology. There's really no halfway about Después de Lucía: you either love it or you hate it, and most who do dislike it dislike it with a vengeance. Which is entirely understandable, since this is a film about bullying and there's no way to be nice about it or sweeten the pill. Bullying is hell, Mr. Franco makes no pretense it's otherwise and he just dunks the viewer headfirst into that hell in a gradual, sickening spiral of psychic violence, making you feel (or remember) just how much it hurts and just how unbearable the callousness and humiliation makes life.
Yet bullying is not the only thing in Mr. Franco's mind, since the film is borne out of a place of hurt and mourning, as chef Roberto (Hernán Mendoza) and his teenage daughter Alejandra (Tessa Ia) move to Mexico City after the tragic death of the wife and mother. Roberto, starting a new job, tries valiantly the rise above the depression he is nursing since Lucía's death, and Alejandra becomes the rock of the household, the glue holding it all together, even integrating well with the new classmates. Then a thoughtless decision to have sex with one of them during a weekend outing throws her literally to the school gossip lions and into a slippery slope of daily humiliations that Alejandra will simply not tell anyone about, since someone's got to hold the fort at home and there's no one else but her.
Mr. Franco's handling of the situation rejects any complacency but never falls into the trap of gratuitous voyeurism; he is merely placing us in the situation Alejandra is going through and making us realise what is at stake in an age where acceptance and social skills are everything. Once it all goes overboard during a class trip, Después de Lucía spirals into a devastating quasi-horror-film conclusion that is underlined by the director's rigorously geometric camera setips and the absence of music to let the dread sink in, down to making the final long-take shot mirror perfectly the long-take opening shot. A work of staggering formal and narrative control, Después de Lucía is one of the most unbearably powerful films I have seen in a very long time.
Cast: Tessa Ia, Hernán Mendoza
Director and writer: Michel Franco
Cinematography: Chuy Chávez (colour)
Art director: Christopher Friessen
Costumes: Evelyn Robles
Editors: Mr. Franco, Antonio Bribiesca
Producers: Mr. Franco, Marco Polo Constandse, Elías Menassé, Fernando Rovzar, Alexis Fridman (Pop Films, Lemon Films and Filmadora Nacional in co-production with Stromboli Films)
Mexico/France, 2012, 102 minutes
Screened: Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival official competition screening, Medeia Monumental 1 (Lisbon), November 12th 2012