“You don’t need to pay me back, just leave my house,” says Daniel (Diego Boneta) to Ronaldo (Eligio Meléndez) a former housekeeper for Daniel’s wealthy family in Michel Franco’s New Order (Nuevo Orden). He has come to their city house-cum-fortress, on Marianne’s (Naian Gonzalez Norvind) wedding day, to beg for money. His wife desperately needs heart surgery, but only a private hospital will do: protests around the city have turned violent, and she was flung out of her bed on the ward by green paint covered dissidents. This intriguing social dilemma is where Franco’s film begins. By the time it ends, the viewer has been bound, gagged and subjected to the horrors of his whim. Though the rebellion soon spills into a rich neighbourhood, putting an abrupt pause on Marianne’s wedding, New Order is a no class-consciousness film in the vein of Parasite or La Cérémonie. The broad strokes of the story may have some legs as an allegory for cartel violence or the legacy of Mexico’s Dirty War of the 1960s and 1970s — disparate elements coalescing around a mutual greed and a mutual need to oppress — but this is a reactionary work, which sees violence as the ultimate cure, the rich as foolish but ultimately right, and Mexico at large as a playground for chancers and bandits.
When Marianne’s Mother Pilar (Patricia Bernal) turns on a tap at the wedding to see water pouring lime green, to reference the Mexican flag’s colour representing hope, she knows the revolution is coming for them. But still the wedding party continues — candy crush coloured costumes, casual drug use, EDM music at the end of the world. In this early stretch, New Order seems to follow The Exterminating Angel, not letting its bourgeois characters realise their complacent imperialism. Only Marianne, who leaves with Ronaldo’s nephew Christian (Fernando Cuautle) to fetch money for the operation, seems to vaguely acknowledge the power gap at play; for this, New Order will punish her.
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Violence comes, and New Order spirals into several different directions with its characters spread across the map. After the fighting has ended, Franco shows the corpses of the film’s first victims, mostly women, supine and twisted with bullet holes visible. He then teleports around the city to show the aftermath of violence in wide static shots. But where is the glory of artfully posing the bodies of the dead? A highway with burnt out cars and a revolving bus stop ad that’s ironically draped with a corpse; the front of a shopping centre where the lights are still on, and one person runs in the distance from the military; the plaza before City Hall, where soldiers move bodies and shoot those still moving — these tableaus resemble a kind of pop-art Francisco Goya, but their effect is far from revolutionary. Rather, they gesture to the dystopian: goofy enough to pass as satire, precisely composed for impact.
Initial reviews of New Order noted a similarity between Franco’s approach to violence and Michael Haneke, a deficient comparison. Whether one finds the austrian filmmaker’s films callous and mean-spirited or transcendent in their sharp social commentary, it is difficult to picture him indulging in the grim scenes of military violence or servant-becoming-master as Franco does with New Order. Even one of Haneke’s messier films like Happy End gives the viewer enough room to make their own connections between scenes and sub-plots. New Order links every strand and character to a fault. It is satisfying to see the dominoes fall, the system of power link up and the web of conspiracy brought to completion — but then what? By the time Franco joins together strands that the audience will most likely have seen coming, the film grinds to a halt. Yes, Mexico is riddled with corruption, Franco says, and while we’re at it, it looks good too! But ask Franco what more is to be gleamed, and New Order comes up short.
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There is an interesting holistic idea in New Order about how the military orchestrates populist movements to reassert control over its citizens. It lingers in the background of Franco’s film, orchestrating the maneuverings that occur between scenes. From militarised police who refuse to give help or even simple information to a vast control room where government agents watch over the city, every turn is a full stop. What is on screen instead is violence and pain.
Marianne’s scenes in military custody are particularly depressing. Franco shows the women at this mixed-gender prison camp being processed, having a number crudely drawn on their head and thrown around like sacks of meat. Do we also need to see Marianne get raped to know how abusive the military are? If it doesn’t develop the viewer’s understanding of the military, then does it further Marianne’s character, other than to force the audience to witness her torture and degradation at the hands of the authorities? That Franco chooses an incredibly wealthy white woman as this vessel of audience identification while the film’s indigenous characters remain depersonalised (Christian literally becomes a vessel at one point, forced to ferry cash between checkpoints) implies that even if Franco isn’t ultimately on the side of the wealthy reasserting their power, which would be a marvel considering viewers don’t even learn why the rebellion took place, then he’s condescending enough to his audience to believe that they are –which wouldn’t be surprising considering this futile, defeatist film is unlikely to garner much of an audience beyond that afforded it by festival programmers. Franco’s people must really have some dirt on Venice, TIFF and LFF.
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.