Review: The political chiller ‘New Order’ is an expression of contempt — and deserves the same
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Like more than a few movies focused on the corruptions and comeuppances of the ultra-rich, Michel Franco’s “New Order” kicks off with a wedding. The bride is Marianne Novelo (Naian González Norvind), and her big day is unfolding in leisurely splendor at her family’s home in one of Mexico City’s wealthiest suburbs. It’s the event of the season, unless you count the violent uprising that has convulsed the city just beyond the house’s high walls, filling the streets with smoke, blood and bold, accusatory splashes of green paint. The horror at first plays out largely offscreen; a few guests are delayed, including the wedding officiant. But by the time someone turns on a faucet and the water runs green, it’s clear that these ill-timed festivities are in for more than a minor inconvenience.
The logistics of the rebellion are left perplexingly vague; Franco, whether sowing ambiguity or telegraphing his disinterest, avoids placing his working-class protesters front and center. His attention gravitates instead toward the Novelos, though sometimes it also alights on the grave, careworn faces of their past and present employees. One of these is Rolando (Eligio Meléndez), a former worker who returns to the house on Marianne’s wedding day with a desperate plea. His wife, Elisa (Regina Flores), has been evicted from her hospital bed by an ominous influx of patients, and the operation she needs will now cost much more than they can afford.
When I first watched this painful, damning scene — as Rolando quietly asks for help while Marianne’s mother (Lisa Owen) and brother (Diego Boneta) barely conceal their irritation — I was faintly reminded of the opening scenes of “The Godfather,” though at that particular wedding the favors were openly solicited. On a recent second viewing of “New Order,” the film that sprang more quickly to mind was “Melancholia,” and not just because Franco shares Lars von Trier’s generally low estimation of humanity. As in that movie, tragedy is foreshadowed in a grimly beautiful prologue, and the most principled, likable character turns out to be a bride who thinks nothing of blowing off her own nuptials. Determined to help Rolando if no one else will, Marianne leaves the house with another member of the staff, Cristián (Fernando Cuautle), not yet realizing her wedding is doomed and then some.
From there, you can pretty much track the action via the many other recent films it evokes, class inequality and free-floating societal bloodlust having been especially hot movie topics of late. Franco, racing through an 85-minute marathon of misery, resorts to a kind of dramatic shorthand — at once viscerally gripping and intellectually slipshod — that leans heavily on other frames of cinematic reference. At first glance, “New Order” — shot (by Yves Cape) in widescreen images that feel both exactingly composed and caught on the fly — suggests an art-house riff on “The Purge” movies, as armed intruders climb over the Novelos’ walls and begin killing, plundering and gaudily redecorating. When the movie pulls back to capture a broader view of the aftermath, all that green paint — vividly contrasted by the bright red of Marianne’s pantsuit — can’t help but bring to mind the clown-masked revolutionaries of “Joker.”
And since “New Order” screened at last year’s Venice International Film Festival (where it won the second-place Grand Jury Prize), more than a few observers have invoked the eat-the-rich allegory of “Parasite” — a comparison that would hold more water if you drained away the wit, emotional sweep and political nuance that made Bong Joon Ho’s film such an indelible weave of class rage and family tragedy. “Parasite,” it’s worth noting, begins and ends with the focus squarely on its poor characters, on their difficult lives and distant dreams. In the dystopian nightmare of “New Order” (“ripped from headlines that haven’t yet been written,” per the production notes), the poor and working-class protesters — most of them Indigenous Mexicans who are darker in complexion than the men and women they’re targeting — are an afterthought, a mystery, an armed-and-dangerous abstraction. It’s not their humanity that interests the filmmaker but their utility: They exist to kill and be killed.
Franco’s lack of curiosity about one set of characters, of course, shouldn’t be mistaken for even a modicum of sympathy for the other. It’s possible to find his framing morally and politically repellent without subscribing to the belief, increasingly popular in contemporary discourse, that a story of oppression should only ever be told from the perspective of the oppressed. For decisive proof to the contrary, one need look no further than the bourgeois-flagellating films of Michael Haneke, whose chilly, analytical sensibility has long been one of this director’s major influences (particularly in such dramas as “After Lucia” and “Chronic”). Franco may privilege his most privileged characters here, but if anything, the attention he gives them feels proportionate with his contempt.
At first you may wonder if Marianne, wrenchingly well played by Norvind, will manage to break free of that contempt. She is, after all, the only member of this story’s oppressor class to show decency and compassion, to act sacrificially in the interests of others. How foolish of her, and of us! Without spoiling (if that’s the word) the spectacle of degradation that consumes the second half of “New Order,” I will simply note that it’s as conclusive a demonstration as any that no good deed ever goes unpunished. To find yourself caring for Marianne — and also for Cristián and his mother, Marta (Mónica del Carmen), who do everything they can to help her — is to stumble headlong into the movie’s trap, namely that it fooled you into caring to begin with.
The lesson we’re meant to take away from “New Order” is that all the people onscreen — rich or poor, left or right, civilian or military — are irredeemable and fundamentally interchangeable, and that each of them (and by extension, us) has a cog-like role to play in an inexorable cycle of dehumanization, slaughter and abuse. Franco pursues this nihilistic thesis with a single-mindedness that one might call rigorous if it didn’t also feel so lazy. With icy composure but also palpable excitement, he steers us through blocked-off streets, corpse-strewn plazas and eventually past the gates of a prison where inmates are greeted with a friendly “Welcome to hell, a—holes!” Rarely have I heard a director speak more directly to his audience.
In Spanish with English subtitles
Rated: R, for disturbing and violent content, rape, graphic nudity and language
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: Starts May 21 in general release where theaters are open
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