Following its premiere in Venice last year, Mexican director Michel Franco’s sixth feature receives its UK release this week. Depicting a fictional uprising in an unnamed Mexican city, New Order ably depicts the terror, confusion and violence of political revolution, but stops short of offering meaningful context.
Nestled amidst a wealthy suburb, young couple Marianne (Naian González Norvind) and Daniel (Diego Bonita) are celebrating their wedding in their opulent family home, surrounded by well-wishing and well-to-do relatives. The home itself, constructed of open spaces, enormous glass walls and an immaculately-manicured lawn, is reminiscent of the mansion of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. It’s a comparison that has been made before but one that does New Order few favours. Where director Bong used the cold surfaces and alienating space of Parasite’s house to create a neo-gothic totem, here the home is just there to straightforwardly tell us that the family is wealthy.
Indeed, Franco’s drab use of his opening setting is indicative of a a simplicity and lack of nuance that runs throughout his film. At its best, this simplicity translates into visceral directness; the terror of the revolutionaries’ attack on Marianne’s family is palpable, while depicting such a scene from the perspective of the wealthy creates an early tension of empathy between the rioting servants and the besieged millionaires, who moments ago were turning away one of those very servants for requesting a loan for urgent medical care.
Or rather, it would, if we had a better sense of what the servants were rioting for. Inequality is vaguely implied as the cause for the riots, while the disorder of the uprising is exploited by the military, who stage a coup and install a dictatorship. It’s telling that we spend almost no time at all with any of the rioters, learning nothing of their demands or grievances beyond their indiscriminate killing and cartoonish cackling as they pilfer their former masters’ diamonds.
After the trailer for New Order dropped, there was criticism of what appeared to be uniformly dark-skinned rioters terrorising white people. In defence of the film, it feels a little unfair to expect the complex, intersectional nature of class struggles and race to be accurately depicted in a trailer. However, that defence is a little harder to make given the almost cartoonish lack of empathy for or interest in the rioters that the finished film actually has. Coupled with imagery that deliberately invokes the Holocaust as well as depicting sexual violence, internment and torture, New Order is frequently exploitative and clumsy in its evocation of provocative imagery.
Amidst such cynicism it’s difficult to foster empathy for all but a handful of characters. It’s also telling that the only characters to show decency – Marianne, former employee Rolando (Eligio Meléndez), or Christian (Fernando Cuautle) – are all without agency, reduced to two-dimensional victims, mere vectors upon which senseless violence is meted out. What does any of this mean? It’s difficult to say when we don’t know what anyone wants. Perhaps that’s the point, that the aims of political struggle are ultimately futile when they simply lead to new systems of power and oppression. This reviewer doesn’t buy it. It is possible to depict power’s fluid indefatigability with nuance, care and humanity, but in the case of New Order, complexity and a fearless examination of political violence are eschewed in favour of exploitation and nihilism. The irony is that in its failure to make a clear statement on the way that power operates in society, Franco’s film unwittingly sides against its victims.