New Order (Michel Franco, Mexico/France)

By Adam Nayman

“Mexico’s upper classes are asking for trouble,” Michel Franco told Variety last fall. With New Order,trouble has found them. The deep-crimson dress selected by prosperous newlywed Marianne (Naian González Norvind) for the lavish post-wedding party at her family’s spotless steel-and-glass estate is couture at its most ominous; don’t look now, but there will be blood. In point of fact, Norvind’s lady in red has departed the premises by the time they’re overrun by gun-toting protestors bent on extracting cash (and pounds of flesh) from its proprietors and their guests. But lest anybody fear that Franco’s light-skinned scion of inherited wealth is set to get off easy, the film’s second half takes pains to detail her abasement, step by step, as she’s abducted, held for ransom, and left as collateral damage in a nation’s paradigm shift.

Pain is the operative word here, and Franco—who infamously ended his 2015 breakthrough Chronic,about a saintly personal-care nurse, by having Tim Roth’s Mr. Florence Nightingale creamed by a speeding van à la Meet Joe Black (1999)—is well along in the process of snatching the baton (or the electric cattle prod) from his spiritual progenitor Michael Haneke. That the austere Austrian has lately fallen out of cinephile fashion speaks equally to the increasing redundancy of his funny games (with the already forgotten Happy End [2017] a barely veiled sequel to Amour [2012], proposing the possibility of a Haneke Extended Cinematic Universe) and a wider-scale adoption of his once-rarified—and still, to these eyes, never quite equalled or duplicated—strategy of cool, implacable audience implication. Drag Haneke all you want for repeating himself, for being a scold, and for sitting willingly for Hollywood Reporter roundtables with Judd Apatow in order to chase an Oscar. But also concede that those Milgramish shock tactics were usually yoked to genuinely serious ideas about image-making, spectatorship, and, in his sadly underrated 2003 anti-thriller Le temps du loup—whose scenes from the class struggle after the end of the world as we know it seem to have inspired New Order—the conditions and psychology of global economic precarity.

In the year since its 2020 fall festival-circuit rollout (which included a Silver Lion from a Venice jury headed by Cate Blanchett), New Order has been pilloried by Spanish- and English-language critics alike for relating its story of bloody uprising from the point of view of its well-heeled victims. “[The film] gives reason to those who judge people whom, in a desperate way, reclaim justice from the streets,” writes Arturo Magaña Arce, right on the money. That it’s easier—and, for the punitively inclined artiste,probably more fun—to jerry-rig an antiseptic, photogenic bourgeois milieu and have it defaced by faceless invaders than to dramatize the lives of the ones holding the guns, or even provide any kind of political background or argument at all, doesn’t absolve Franco’s shameless and counterintuitive fear-mongering. What gives the film its thin sliver of plausible deniability is the idea that, by so brazenly deindividuating the dark-skinned Indigenous protestors, Franco is eschewing the kind of sentimental liberal condescension that would paint them as heroes and conveying the blinkered insularity of the haves who don’t understand why the proverbial barbarians are at the gates. Through this lens, New Order is implicitly about, and even aligned with, the motives of the dispossessed mob.

That reading would be easier to swallow if the film’s second half weren’t so clinically-slash-fetishistically focused on Marianne’s abuse, which evokes the cinema-of-cruelty holy grail Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) minus Pasolini’s crucial, contextualizing thesis about cruelty (as opposed to anger) as a byproduct of state and religious power. At its core, Salò is a tale of idle hands as the Devil’s playthings—an atheist Marxist’s parable of temptation. In New Order, the power brokers are victimized and the metaphysics hew closer to retributive, eye-for-an-eye vengeance, which, regardless of Franco’s putative good intentions—and they may well be less than good, given his since-apologized-for-on-social-media moans about being a victim of “reverse racism” in the film’s local reception—comes off as irresponsibly alarmist at best and borderline diabolical at worst. It’s one thing for an enterprising, transnational, Cannes-ratified auteur to conjure up a near-future dystopia where an upshot in proletarian carnage hastens the army’s ascent to a ruthless military dictatorship (effectively covering his ideological bases in the process). It’s another for him to draw formal and moral equivalencies between the two factions under the solemn aegis of bearing unblinking “witness” to atrocity—especially when the manufacture of photogenic atrocity is the centrepiece of his directorial skill set.

With all of this in mind, does it matter that Franco proves just as relatively skillful in his Alfonso Cuarón cosplay as in the Haneke-isms of Chronic?What, you ask, about the filmmaking? Answer: it’s OK. Working with the great cinematographer Yves Cape (who served tours of duty with Bruno Dumont, Claire Denis, and Leos Carax before cashing in with the glossy paycheck gig of Call My Agent!), Franco imbues the first half of New Order with a roving, anticipatory sense of dread. This is arguably easy to do—gather a bunch of people in one place and wait for something terrible to happen— but it’s rarely done well. The expertly calibrated sound design is a character in its own right, manifesting the rebellion in snatches of background radio chatter and small-talk asides before bringing it ear-splittingly into the foreground. The actors are very good too, in the same fraught, terrorized way that they often are in Haneke’s films, except that Franco (whose career arc benefitted hugely from Roth’s presence in Chronic) doesn’t use any above-the-title, national-cinema axioms here. Where Haneke cycles smartly between La Binoche and La Huppert to attract financing for his downers, and Kleber Mendonça Filho regularly calls on Sonia Braga, Franco’s scenario requires non-iconic performers to work. Also, a real star might distract from the virtuoso behind the camera.

I actually thought quite a bit about Mendonça’s recently and rightly acclaimed Bacurau (2019) during and after my viewing of New Order,and of the two films as distorted mirror images of one another: both speculative, dystopian thrillers describing the hellish financial stratification of the Global South. Distorted and also inverted, for Bacurau’switty revamp of The Most Dangerous Game (1932) by way of early John Carpenter and Predator (1987) casts its lot with the villagers being used for target practice by foreign interlopers and ends up as an hymn to resistance that, gratefully, doesn’t skimp on the exploitation-movie gore. Mendonça knows what he’s doing and how to do it (as, to an extent, does Franco), but the difference lies in the why—the gap between channelling underclass anger in the service of righteous B-movie catharsis and inadvertently both-sidesing the material and intellectual conditions of a presumptive socialist revolution. New Order means to map the shaky foundations of Mexican (and global) hegemony and visualize its precipitous collapse, and yet it’s been made in a way that all but guarantees it will be misinterpreted—or maybe understood all too well—by an art-house audience hardwired (and, frankly, encouraged) to identify with the attractive, monied characters being held at gunpoint. Maybe they are asking for it, but beware the director in a race to show us he’s the one who’s gonna give it to ’em.