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Anyone who has spent time in a major international metropolis with a luxury shopping precinct catering to the highest income bracket will be shaken by the startling image of a massive Louis Vuitton flagship store — in this case on Mexico City’s chic Avenida Presidente Masaryk — splashed with the symbolic green paint of a protest movement, the ground nearby littered with corpses not yet cold. No matter where you land on the ever-widening global wealth divide, the stark finality of that sight is a chilling representation of unchecked social disparity sparking potentially all-too-real chaos.
That visual is far from the most graphic depiction of the violent overthrow of the privileged ruling class in Michel Franco’s short, sharp shock to the system, New Order. In films like After Lucia and his English-language debut Chronic, with Tim Roth, the Mexican writer-director has shown an unflinching fascination with cruel inequality, punishing sacrifice and vast imbalances of power leading to brutal extremes. His latest work is easily his most political and his most distressingly provocative. Calling it grim is an understatement.
Franco has said that when he wrote the project four years ago he could not have imagined how eerily his dystopian fiction would fit the narrative of 2020. He cites the Yellow Vest movement for economic justice in France, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S., and civil unrest in Hong Kong, Chile and Lebanon as symptoms of social breakdown in a combustible world demanding change. The imbalance of a small percentage of the population controlling all the resources is particularly skewed in Mexico, where structural racism is evident in the split between the white establishment and the brown-skinned working class, more than half of them living in poverty.
Given the raw nerves being struck by the widening gulf between the haves and have-nots around the globe, New Order is a bitter pill to digest. But the tough film no doubt will follow its Venice and Toronto bows with wider exposure given its relevance in the current frightening political climate, as authoritarian movements worldwide flex their muscles while emboldening hate and intolerance.
The new feature represents something of a departure from the stylistic austerity of Franco’s previous work. There’s considerably more camera movement in the widescreen images of Yves Cape (also the cinematographer on Franco’s last two features), and the unblinking stillness has given way to nervier rhythms in the editing, as befits the scenario of a city ripped apart by riots, looting and bloodshed.
While the director as usual eschews a conventional score, he makes minimal use here of non-diegetic music, notably in an opening sequence of unsettling quick cuts accompanied by Shostakovich’s “The Year 1905,” from Symphony No. 11 in G minor. That piece is a representation of “Bloody Sunday,” when a peaceful demonstration of 150,000 unarmed people outside the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg was crushed by the czar’s Cossacks.
The images, the meaning of which soon becomes clear, include people being dragged along corridors; green paint flowing down stairs like a river, marking a line down the middle of a naked woman or drenching the window of a store as a bride is being fitted for her wedding gown; furniture being hurled from a balcony; and perhaps most disturbingly, a vibrantly colored abstract art mural that looks like a comic-strip take on Picasso’s Guernica.
The first scene jolts us right into the middle of upheaval as patients are turfed out of a hospital to make room for injured activists, many of them spattered with green paint, and dead bodies carpet a floor, some stripped nude. Among those displaced from a sickbed is the wife of Rolando (Eligio Meléndez), who worked for the upper-class Novello family several years earlier. That well-heeled property-development clan is in busy wedding-day mode as 25-year-old Marianne (Naian González Norvind) prepares to marry budding architect Alan (Darío Yazbek) at their stylish modern home in the posh Polanco neighborhood.
A bathroom faucet running with green water adds to the anxiety of the bride’s mother Rebeca (Lisa Owen), fluttering about in a mildly fraught state, and depositing the many fat gift envelopes of cash in a bedroom safe. A passing reference is made that these offerings are quid pro quo for the many palms her husband Iván (Roberto Medina) has greased, most conspicuously that of VIP guest Victor (Enrique Singer), a high-ranking government official with military connections.
As security personnel monitor the situation in surrounding areas where protests are taking place, Rolando appears at the gate to ask Rebeca for a substantial loan to cover private clinic admission costs for his wife, who is in urgent need of heart surgery. Flustered, but not entirely unsympathetic, she gives him a fraction of what he needs and hopes to be rid of him. Marianne, however, has obvious affection for the former domestic servant and his wife; she offers without hesitation to give him the money and becomes angered when she learns that her older brother Daniel (Diego Boneta) has brushed Rolando off.
Enlisting Christian (Fernando Cuautle), the son of loyal family housekeeper Marta (Mónica del Carmen), to drive her through streets blocked by police and protesters, Marianne heads to Rolando’s home intending to accompany his wife to the clinic and cover her bills.
Franco doesn’t overplay the percolating dread of these early scenes, though the tension already is high when armed activists start scrambling over the gated family compound’s walls and Iván is the first to be shot. The frenetic violence that ensues is shocking, as protesters vandalize the house and line the guests up against a wall, while insiders on the catering staff bag valuables and force Rebeca at gunpoint to open the safe. The spray-painted words “Putos Ricos” can be read across the front of the house as dead bodies are removed in the next morning’s stunned aftermath.
There are no heightened movie tropes in the director’s handling of this explosive violence, simply the dispassionate gaze of a hardened social realist. The same applies to the confusion that follows, as choppers dot the skies and armored military vehicles roll in; phone lines are down, a citywide curfew is imposed and the dead and wounded are removed from the streets while official checkpoints are set up.
Marta, meanwhile, manages to make it home to find Christian, after Marianne has been escorted out by soldiers claiming to return her to her family. Instead, she is removed to a holding facility with countless other rich sequestrados, a number scrawled on each of their foreheads during brusque interrogation scenes. Scenes of rape and sexual abuse follow — much of it partially off-camera though no less horrifying for it — and prisoners are systematically traumatized to give their ransom videos maximum impact.
While Franco hurtles through the unfolding action, which takes place over weeks but packs real-time urgency, the breathless pacing nonetheless makes note of the unchastened arrogance of the old political order and the ruthlessness and corruption of its even worse replacement. Daniel and Alan have retreated to safety in a development on the outskirts of the city, where the groom’s mother Pilar (Patricia Bernal) continues obliviously to treat the nurse hired to look after seriously wounded Iván as the help. Ransom demands for Marianne’s return come from both an official channel and from a self-serving faction within the militarized new regime, using Marta and Christian as their pawns.
Given the risk of right-wing doom scenarists like the Trump base misinterpreting all this as a warning of what could happen when lawless protesters gain control, Franco is careful to point up the rotten core of the ruling class and the strong arm of law enforcement that tend to maintain control by whatever means necessary. In this case, that leads back to the nefarious figure of Victor, who plays a decisive role in the harrowing outcome, with its cold spectacle of sacrificial lambs and scapegoats.
Audiences might conceivably be divided on the vicious gut punch of Franco’s approach, but as a call for more equitable distribution of wealth and power, it’s terrifyingly riveting.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Teorema, Les Films d’Ici
Cast: Naian González Norvind, Diego Boneta, Mónica del Carmen, Fernando Cuautle, Darío Yazbek, Roberto Medina, Patricia Bernal, Lisa Owen, Enrique Singer, Eligio Meléndez, Gustavo Sánchez Parra
Director-screenwriter: Michel Franco
Producers: Michel Franco, Cristina Velasco L., Eréndira Núñez Larios
Executive producers: Lorenzo Vigas, Diego Boneta, Cecilia Franco, Charles Barthe
Director of photography: Yves Cape
Production designer: Claudio Ramírez Castelli
Costume designer: Gabriela Fernández
Editors: Oscar Figueroa Jara, Michel Franco
Sound designers: Alejandro de Icaza, Enrique Fernández Tanco
VFX supervisors: Hughes Namur, Edgardo Mejía
Casting: Viridiana Olvera, Victoria Franco
Sales: The Match Factory
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