If you’ve found yourself having just too good a time lately and need that to come to an end, hotfoot it to New Order, the new ordeal from Mexican director Michel Franco. In just 86 brisk, effectively brutalizing minutes, any tentative optimism you might have been feeling — say, due to a jaunty walk to a newly-reopened movie theater in sunny weather — will completely dissipate into a far more familiar downer fug. Not to suggest it’s all doom and depression! The film also makes you feel unpleasantly dirty.
Franco is a filmmaker whose screenwriting reach quite often exceeds the grasp of his admittedly exceptional technical craft. His last two movies, Chronic (2015) and April’s Daughter (2017) are both compelling, intricate psychological dramas right until they’re not; both suffer from jaw-droppingly over-torqued twists, sometimes reserved for the very last minute. It’s like being gradually drawn to a character’s existential struggle through the desert, only for them to die by stepping on the only rake in the Sahara.
But those films — both of which were awarded in Cannes — were modest in scope, so you could just about believe that their creator’s scorn was reserved for the worlds therein. Franco’s new movie (a winner of the Grand Jury Prize in Venice, lest we think it’s just Cannes jurors who huff this particular glue) embodies exactly the same playthings-of-a-callous-God approach, and exactly the same not-knowing-when-to-quit storytelling. Only this time, it’s applied as a Grand Statement to all of Mexican society. As a container for Franco’s sloshing cynicism, New Order is just as leaky as anything he’s made, but on a much larger scale. This time, it leaks all over us too.
It’s the wedding day of Marianne Novelo (Naian González Norvind), which is taking place in her wealthy parents’ gated modernist dream-house. VIP guests are arriving in chauffeured cars, bright smiles and designer outfits, downplaying the social unrest they’ve witnessed en route. One lady comes lightly spattered with green paint, the symbol of the protests massing a few blocks away; Marianne’s mother (Lisa Owen) is alarmed when the bathroom tap runs green for a spell. But initially, this privileged family — which includes Marianne’s big-wig father and her horrible brother Daniel (Diego Boneta) — are faced with a smaller social crisis. An old employee of theirs, Rolando (Eligio Meléndez) has come to beg for a loan to pay for emergency heart surgery for his wife, who also used to work for the Novelos.
Marianne’s mother barely suppresses her Karen-esque annoyance. Daniel thinks nothing of insinuating that Rolando’s plight is a fiction. Only Marianne really wants to help, to the point of leaving her own wedding with Cristián (Fernando Cuautle), a current staffer whose mother Marta (Mónica del Carmen) also works at the house, to bring Rolando the money he needs. This mission of mercy means they are away from the house when an angry yet well-organized mob of armed intruders invades, and starts gunning down the guests in an orgiastic explosion of dispossessed rage.
The plot is thus structured to make us think that Marianne, Cristiàn, Rolando and Marta’s relative blamelessness has somehow spared them (Marianne is hidden by Cristiàn as the riots worsen and martial law is imposed). But we’re dead wrong about that: the grisliest aspect of this extremely grisly movie is that its worst ethical, physical, mental and sexual degradations are visited exclusively upon the handful of characters who display an impulse toward decency. Be careful where you point your compassion in New Order. It has a tendency to ricochet.
Not since Michael Haneke’s Funny Games — a film so patronizingly didactic he made it twice — have we been forced, as though at gunpoint, to assess our own voyeuristic complicity in the brutality of what we’re watching. And the kicker here is: We aren’t complicit. This is a movie that actively punishes the viewer for feeling the sympathy and identification that it is precisely formulated to elicit. In using manipulative, often heavily loaded imagery such as naked, numerically catalogued writhing bodies (which are herded into a mass shower at one point), New Order basically becomes an act of arthouse edgelordism.
The film caused a scandal in Mexico because of its dubiously undifferentiated portrayal of the original intruders as Indigenous or darker-skinned Mexicans, visiting terrible savagery on a white elite. And it’s true their venality is gratuitously underlined: witness the maid cackling with actual joy as she shovels valuables into her bag while, in an adjoining room, their owner is summarily executed. Even so, before the lines of class war get hopelessly tangled, the carnage feels loosely plausible on an allegorical level. Nobody said eating the rich was going to be pretty or proportionate. It’s hardly surprising, or even particularly unreasonable, that the starving class might overindulge — imagine Parasite minus the wit, subtlety or cleverness.
But a yawning nihilism is revealed as the movie devolves into scaled-up, tricked-out, dumbed-down depiction of dystopian societal collapse. It is not only bludgeoningly nasty but also, viewed from a May 2021 standpoint, quite staggeringly un-prescient. If even now you think that a dramatically paint-splattered bang of bloodshed and barricades is a more likely end for society than a slow, fizzling whimper of apathy and listlessness, maybe you’ll find something profound or provocative within the snickering both-sides emptiness here. The rest of us can only look forward to feeling dumber, number and way more in need of a shower than we were when we were 86 minutes younger.