Newly released Mexican drama New Order is hard to categorise but, if one were to try, it might be described as a political-themed dystopian fantasy thriller with a completely unpredictable storyline. It deals with issues relevant to Mexico, but could easily apply to many parts of the world and will certainly be entertaining and engaging to an international audience.
Director Michel Franco’s previous five feature films have been well received internationally, earning, among others, the special jury prize, Un Certain Regard, and Best Screenplay awards at the Cannes Film Festival, for his personal dramas dealing with issues like illness, teen pregnancy, and school bullying. With his latest film, Franco takes a new and darker direction, offering a grim and frightening perspective on the consequences of maintaining an unequal system, in a film that is bigger and more complex than any of his previous work. In a recent interview, Franco remarked, “New Order forced me to think about making movies in a new way,” explaining that the challenge of addressing larger issues on screen would not have been possible “in an intimate movie of the kind I have made before.” Franco expanded his artistic horizons in order to tell this bold and unusual story.
The film begins with a clear contrast between two groups of people within the same city. It opens on scenes of mayhem, violence, dead bodies; in a hospital ward, patients are being hurriedly moved for unknown reasons. Sirens and emergency klaxons are heard, and people are acting in haste as if threatened by an oncoming disaster. It seems there are demonstrations and riots everywhere. From here, the film cuts to a wedding in what is clearly the wealthy part of the city. Servants work in the kitchen as well-dressed guests gather on the lawn, but even here there are vague hints of disruption, and precautions are taken.
In the plotline that launches the main story, a servant begs for help. His wife is severely ill, but no one at the party will help him, until the kind-hearted bride, Marianne (Naian Gonzalez Norvind), leaves her own wedding reception to drive him and offers to pay for medical treatment. She finds streets blockaded by the police and is waylaid by protestors. News reports describe a chaotic situation, looting in the streets and attacks on pedestrians. As Marianne tries to take shelter in her car, the violent protests finally reach the site of the wedding, and the horror escalates. The situation seems clear enough, but there is more to it.
The next morning, the streets are wrecked but quiet, the injured still being taken away in ambulances. Police offer Marianne help in getting home. At this point, the film makes a drastic and unexpected turn, one which requires the viewer to rethink what is really going on, then to rethink it again, and yet again. The story becomes darker, more complicated, and more overtly political as it winds on. Each new plot twist reveals that there is something devious happening, something that is revealed one layer at a time over the course of the film.
Director Michel Franco discussed the themes he explored in New Order, just before its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. His native Mexico, he said, was not only troubled with poverty, in which “a small percentage is wealthy and holds all resources,” but “injustice is a fact of life, and nobody in power is doing anything.” He described the circumstances in Mexico City, where he grew up, in which “there is a small bubble in which the upper-class lives, ignoring the slums 15 minutes away,” while acknowledging that this is not a situation unique to Mexico. Franco also compared the gap between rich and poor to the US, in that “there is a direct connection between the social consequences of structural racism and economic inequity.”
What Franco intended to demonstrate with his latest film is the dangers of letting such injustice go on indefinitely. “My fear,” he commented, “Is that if we ignore and suppress these injustices for too long, the change that will undoubtedly come will be violent.” He points to the Black Lives Matter movement in the US as a “valve” without which “you turn the country into a pressure cooker; at some point, it is going to blow up.”
As the film progresses, it grows more interesting as entertainment, simply because of the mystery aspect. It becomes impossible to be sure of which characters or categories are heroes, which are villains. Motivations that seem obvious at first must be reinterpreted; people and institutions seen as safe refuges become threats; apparent explanations are turned on their heads. This confusion produces exactly the result the filmmaker intended: to cause viewers to think more deeply about what they see, and its connection to reality.
New Order is a take on the possible troubles that can result from ignoring injustice for too long—a fantastical vision, but a pertinent one. The film provides one parallel to what Franco sees in real life: the development of more and more aimlessness among protestors. As injustice becomes more intolerable, Franco says, uprisings may not have a specific goal or ideology in common, only the agreement “that the present is unbearable.” Such uprisings may take bizarre forms—such as the ones imagined in this film.
Franco’s dystopian scenario, which goes through genuinely gruesome horrors before resolving the situation with one of the most deeply cynical conclusions in film, is not, he insists, meant to impart any particular political theory. Franco denies even trying to “force an interpretation of what is going on onto the audience.” He does admit, however, that his film warns the fortunate against complacency, demonstrating that money will not buy security forever. All of this is accomplished without sacrificing either film quality or entertainment value. Most of all, New Order is a fascinating conversation starter. As the director says, “underneath the dystopia I depict in New Order, I am trying to start a positive dialogue.”