The release of Michel Franco’s New Order in his home country of Mexico caused a considerable stir. Even ahead of the official premiere, the short trailer accompanying the movie was enough to draw the ire of certain, more progressive, sections of the Mexican society and – without anyone having seen the movie in question – New Order was dismissed as racist, insensitive and opportunistic. This blew out of all proportions when Franco himself picked up the mic and defended himself against what I can only imagine was a slew of ad hominem attacks hurled by anonymous trolls on Twitter. And hence, a narrative was crystallized. After all, despite often claiming otherwise, most people are unlikely to change their minds even when faced with evidence to the contrary, so quite expectedly, New Order ended up critically derided in Mexico. And even though it received much warmer reviews elsewhere, it has been permanently perfumed with the noticeable scent that screams ‘problematic’.
In all honesty, I find it quite fascinating that this movie caused an uproar of this calibre, though I am equally not surprised that it did. The bulk of the reason why that is might be because Franco simply did not consider the possibility some or all the allegory he was building might sail over the viewers’ heads and that some of them might not tease out of the narrative what the filmmaker wanted to express. What he did was turn New Order into a cultural lightning rod which serves to denude many rampant hypocrisies marring the political discourse.
To this end, the film doesn’t spend a single second explaining to the viewer what is going on. Following a short opening montage which only begins to make sense once the film concludes (and only if the viewer is still capable of suppressing their iridescent rage). Borrowing a page or two from Michael Haneke, Franco seems content with the idea of setting a camera on a tripod and filming situations seemingly out of context. We see a hospital ward that becomes overwhelmed with a veritable wave of trauma victims which suggests a massacre has taken place. We don’t know what happened or why. We only see the aftermath. And even in that we are not let in on the reason why we are watching this scene in the first place (which comes later in the film). We can only infer that a protest has taken place.
The camera then cuts to a wholly different scenario. From a hospital nightmare of gunshot wounds, lacerations and amputations we are transported into a seemingly idyllic setting of an upper-class wedding. We don’t know whether this is happening concurrently to the previous scene, or if we were transported back in time, or maybe even forward. All we know is that we are looking at two young people about to tie the knot. And as we roam this setting together with Franco’s camera we are allowed to gather more evidence and triangulate what is happening. We hear helicopters overhead. We see security guards at the perimeter of the house effectively sequestering the rich aristocracy pretending the world around them doesn’t exist as they dance, drink and indulge in their lavish lifestyles. But as we examine this scenario, Franco introduces elements of dread into the picture: a blood-covered man in the corner of the frame looking into the house. A few people exchanging suspicious looks. One of the guests arriving to the wedding covered in green paint, which suggests they ran into protesters, perhaps even the same ones who ended up swarming the hospital in the opening scene.
What Franco achieves this way is the feeling of a noose tightening around the characters’ necks. Eventually, the tension is released and a massacre ensues. The house is stormed by a mob of have-nots who execute the rich, take their possessions and vandalize the house only to leave a morbidly self-righteous graffiti over the front door stating “vera tu dios”. Your god will see. It is as though to assert a moral high ground over the massacre that ensued.
I suppose this is where the bulk of accusations of racism stem from because what happened can be simplified as bad brown people assaulting innocent white people, ruining their happiness, taking their stuff and brutally executing them while they’re on their knees begging for their lives. In fact, these images are likely designed to draw similarities to many other historical events when the poor rose up against the ruling classes. However, in times of The French Revolution or when the Russian Empire was toppled in 1917 we didn’t have cameras, a 24-hour news cycle and social media to cover these events from all angles and leave a definitive historical imprint for future generations to study. What is even more fascinating is that Michel Franco isn’t solely interested in making a movie about a class war boiling over to become a violent revolution. This is only a part – pivotal, but only a part nonetheless – of a different discussion, which is way more nuanced and quite clearly completely disregarded by the audiences who made up their minds about the movie twenty minutes in.
The movie does not stop at the massacre at the wedding. It begins there. However, it becomes progressively more difficult for the viewer to make sense of what’s going on because as the story progresses we shadow multiple sets of characters: the bride who evaded death, her family trying to use their influence and money to find her after she goes missing, a young man who works for the family who helped her escape the massacre, and his own family attempting to adjust to the newly ushered dystopian reality. What follows is utter chaos that jumps between settings and – crucially – completely disposes with any notions of stopping for a second to let the viewer figure out what’s happening, why it’s happening, and who is who. It’s quite frankly impossible to figure out who the protagonist of the story is and knowing how the film ends I’d be willing to wager that Franco wasn’t certain either. In fact, it might be the case that he didn’t intend for anyone to be seen as a hero of the story, even though the character of the bride Marianne (Naian Gonzalez Norvind) lends herself the most to fitting in this mould. It’s far more likely that the main protagonist of New Order is chaos itself, which – again – is something many viewers simply failed to acknowledge.
Although Franco’s film makes ample references to the work of Michael Haneke, who was himself derided for similar reasons on multiple occasions, New Order goes well beyond the familiar skewering of the upper classes and didactic finger-waving. Truth be told, the closest Haneke film to which Franco’s movie can be compared in terms of spirit and aspirations is Time of the Wolf, which looks at the mechanics of a society falling apart in a post-apocalyptic scenario and the kinetics of chaos taking over and establishing a new status quo, where financial wealth is no longer the parameter defining how the world is stratified.
What Franco wants to draw our attention to is the often-overlooked aspect of any society coming apart at the seams, which I believe is inspired in no small part by what he believes may be happening to his own country as well. The class war is only a fraction of what’s going on. In fact, it is more likely a useful distraction for anyone with the means and determination to fill any power vacuum that inevitably arises in the wake of any political upheaval. You don’t have to look too far into the past to find examples of what he wants this film to draw attention to. The revolution in Egypt, initially led by grassroots movements opposed to wholesale oppression ended up hijacked by sinister political forces that seized power and refused to let it go. Think of Libya and of Syria and you will realize that modern war and revolution is far from simple: it’s multi-dimensional, multifaceted, complex, nuanced and completely chaotic. What is certain however is that the people trapped in the gears of history – regardless of their wealth, social status, race or creed – end up victimized, brutalized, tortured and abused in the process. Without exceptions. You might not like to hear it, but often good guys lose. In fact, even more often than that it might be impossible to figure out who the good guys are in the first place because when the veneer of society peels away, everyone is in it for themselves. There are no free lunches and only the fittest survive. And those ‘fittest’ might also be the most despicable.
Does the desire to have a difficult conversation about where the filmmaker fears his own country is headed make New Order problematic? Absolutely not. In fact, the knee-jerk response he has received may directly prove he has struck a nerve and that the world is on course to repeat the history it failed to learn from. Granted, Franco’s movie isn’t easy to watch. It’s graphic, brutal and occasionally overwhelming with its depiction of violence, likely thanks to the choice to assume a more withdrawn perspective of a nature documentary that relentlessly keeps the camera rolling and fails to intervene when a pride of lions murders and eat a gazelle. New Order is not supposed to give you easy answers just as a National Geographic documentary about bears would not try to interfere with the chaotic and indifferent Mother Nature. Although I understand it might be too much for many viewers to compute, especially since we are well accustomed to looking away from uncomfortable imagery, Franco’s film is engrossing enough to force you to participate. It’s gruesome, difficult and painted with shades of grey which – contrary to what some viewers would like to think – is what life is. New Order is a Haneke-esque mirror reflecting our civilizational degradation back onto us. So, if you’re one of those who immediately wants to lash out incandescent with rage because you don’t like what you are seeing, you might find out you are angry with yourself.