Venice 2020 review: New Order (Michel Franco)

Mexico City, an upper-class wedding. Guests are trickling in, small talk mixes with business talk. The officiating judge is running late. Green water comes from the tap. Don’t ask. It is already a sign that something is amiss in Michel Franco’s sixth feature New Order, at least in front of the camera (more on what is amiss behind the camera later). An older man comes to the gate, a former employee. He needs money to take his wife to the hospital for an operation. After several family members rebuff him, bride-to-be Marianne (Naian González Norvind) takes his plight to heart. Unable to open the family safe, she takes her car to find this Rolando (Eligio Meléndez), who has left, taking another employee, Cristian (Fernando Cuautle), with her. Slowly reports about violent protests against economic inequality are trickling in. Marianne and Cristian barely manage to escape these protests, but the wedding guests are not so lucky. Protesters break into the villa of Marianne’s parents and start trashing and looting the place, while also killing people at random. The whole city erupts in chaos until the military seemingly restores order. Yet when soldiers take Marianne from Cristian’s place, they don’t bring her home but to a prison complex, along with a few dozen other unlucky souls. They are tortured and raped, and soon the ransom demands begin.

The master of miserablism Michel Franco is back, yet again appearing to have very few tricks up his sleeve. New Order is often very brutal (the body count alone is in the dozens), but when brutality serves no true point it becomes numbing and banal, and Franco’s nihilism seems to exploit it mostly for shock value. It is clear that the army made good use of the social unrest to stage a coup d’état, but it is unclear what Franco is trying to say in this regard. Social inequality seems to be a starting point, but by the time the credits roll another repressive political system has taken root, built on the remnants of the old. Is New Order a warning, and if so, against what? The underlying thought seems to be that if you don’t do anything with the problem of economic inequality at some point things will get out of hand, but this is hardly a brilliant insight.

It is not just the lack of thematic depth that fails New Order, the film is also unbalanced. It takes half an hour before anything of true substance happens, and in a film that is barely 85 minutes in runtime that is simply too long a setup. Even so the film feels longer than it is, most likely because wrapping up the story is again not Franco’s forte, as the rushed ending shows (luckily without a deus ex car crash like in Chronic). Too many characters have to be introduced, characters who often have interchangeable faces and unclear parts in the story. In contrast, the violent protesters Franco seems to want to warn us about have no face at all, and also no clearly established goal. Once they get the upper hand New Order turns into one long and violent nightmare for both the main characters and for the viewer. When the dust has settled, people waking up in Franco’s fictional version of Mexico may wonder what the whole point was. Those emerging into the harsh Lido sunlight did the same.