It takes a lot of courage to touch a theme as delicate as teenage bullying, and a great amount of talent to do so without fetishising the brutality behind it. After Daniel y Ana (2009) Michel Franco confronts an old leitmotiv, public shame, and does it through the story of Alejandra, a young girl who suddenly loses her mum in a car accident and is forced to move to Mexico City to begin a new life with her dad, a forty-something-year-old chef.
The film’s first twenty minutes unfold at a slow pace, as we follow Alejandra’s efforts to fit in the new environment and integrate in a new circle of friends, until the story hits a turning point: Alejandra is filmed having sex with a friend of hers, and the video is then rapidly shared with the entire student body.
What follows is a dramatic portrait of the repercussions Alejandra will suffer as a result of the moment of intimacy with a boy. Just as fast as they had accepted her within their circle, her friends will repudiate her. They will insult her, humiliate her publicly, cut her hair, force her to drink, violate her, and eventually urinate over her sleeping body – activities which, interestingly, the girls enjoy as much as the boys. Alejandra’s body is degraded and turned into an object of shame. In some fundamental sense, Franco has the teenagers de-humanise Alejandra by sexualising her instead.
There are moments in which the level of abuse she is subject to is so extreme that one wonders whether Franco may have exaggerated his story, for the sole purpose of shocking the viewer. But stories of teenage bullying and sex abuse abound, in which the level of humiliation suffered exceeds Alejandra’s and the victims often resort to suicide as the only possible way out. More than exaggerating then, perhaps Franco is only guilty of showing a social malaise to its full extent.
But even when the camera captures the most atrocious moments of Alejandra’s humiliation, it does it in a way that does not fetishize them. Franco keeps the camera still throughout the entire film, whether it is placed inside the girl’s house, a classroom, a hotel room or a car, as if to document the story.
It is this minimalist, somewhat neutral style that has helped Franco to deal with complex themes (bullying, as in here, or terminal illnesses, in Chronic, and organ trafficking, in A Los Ojos) without being smothered by their weight. Franco’s directing does not add anything to make the story more gruesome or shocking, as the camera merely registers the story for what it is, with a sense of honesty and impartiality.
This does not mean the directing style is not sophisticated – quite the contrary. It takes a great degree of work and study to make sure one sees a movie without feeling the director’s ego behind it. And this is precisely what one senses upon watching Después de Lucia.
Winner of the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes in 2012, Después de Lucia may not be an easy film to see, but it is a necessary watch – a story told with a powerful mix of empathy and ruthlessness.