“New Order,” Mexican director Michel Franco’s near-future dystopia thriller that world premieres at the Venice Film Festival Thursday and also screens in Toronto’s Contemporary World Cinema section, begins with protestors, daubed in green paint, bursting into a swanky wedding peopled by Mexico’s indecently rich. They rob the guests, then shoot them dead. Franco’s heart however is obviously on the side of the protestors.
“A Mexican disaster movie,” as Franco calls it, “New Order,” the only Latin American movie in Venice main competition, is Franco’s first direct social verdict on his homeland. “Mexico’s upper class are asking for trouble: They’re building up to a situation that will finally explode,” Franco told Variety in the run-up to Venice.
“The protesters have been saying for decades, hundreds of years: ‘Here we are. We need to heard.’” But nobody has really listened. “That’s why they explode,” Franco adds.
Breaking out when he won the biggest prize at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in 2012 for “After Lucía,” before taking a best screenplay award in Cannes competition for 2015’s “Chronic,” starring Tim Roth, Franco carved out a reputation for intimate, intense movies where the victims of trauma mull their anguish alone, unable to talk through their pain, even with their family.
Here, “New Order” marks its biggest break, Franco argues. “This is the first time that I am openly saying things about not only Mexico but the world at large, its social disparity,” he says.
The result is a withering, brutal and discomfiting portrait of Mexico’s heartless and corruption-sodden stinking rich. “Everyone’s going after money or power,” and social gatherings are “a chance to chase money,” says Franco.
That new, broader focus plays throughout the film. For Franco, “New Order” marks a robust step-up in scale, with crowd scenes, 3,000 extras and heavy VFX work in scenes such as one of Mexico City’s iconic Monumento a la Independencia, post protests.
Franco’s movies to date have had a maximum three characters when he begins to open up with 2017’s “April’s Daughter.” “New Order” has eight, led by the wedding’s bride, Marianne (Naian González Norvind), her older brother Daniel (Diego Boneta), and Marta (Mónica del Carmen), the loyal family maid.
In earlier movies, Franco won fame for his studious fixed-camera sequence shots. One opening “After Lucia,” lensed from the back seat of a car, lasts four minutes.
In “New Order,” in contrast, Franco says, “the camera is always following the action. I didn’t want to fall into an intellectual approach.” “I needed to give the DOP free rein with a handheld camera,” he adds in a director’s statement.
Some things from Franco’s bedrock style remain, however. It’s still left to the audience as in earlier films, to join multiple dots. ”The film contains a lot of ambiguity, which I like and work for,” Franco insists. One big question in “New Order” for example, is why, as protests rage over the city and thousands are slaughtered, the army wait days before intervening. “The biggest ambiguity in the movie is the ambiguity we live as Mexicans, and probably as citizens of every other country: We never know what the hell’s going on,” Franco comments.
“Every time I make a movie, I try to keep it as small as possible, because the less money the less demands from other people, the more control I maintain,” the director insists.
So even if the movie looks like one of the biggest Latin American movies in years, the budget isn’t huge. “I didn’t have $10 million,” Franco cautions. Its production structure remains contained. Sold internationally by The Match Factory, with ICM representing U.S. rights, “New Order’s” lead producer is Franco’s own company, Teorema, and its producers include loyal longtime supporters: Fellow filmmaker and Venice Golden Lion winner Lorenzo Vigas and service company Labo head Charles Barthe both serve as executive producers.
“New Order” is backed out of Mexico by Televisa’s Videocine, “a loyal partner: I had complete freedom,” Franco notes. Beyond that, Charlotte Uzu at Les Films d’Ici co-produces out of France. Ad Vitam has acquired French distribution rights. Franco, meanwhile, writes, directs, takes the lead producer credit and co-edits.
Above all, “New Order” still shocks through its unremitting portrait of human suffering and callousness. In what seems an act of madness – the audience can go figure – Marianne takes off during her own wedding, swearing to be back in time for a judge to officiate, to accompany the wife of a former employee to a clinic and pay for her desperately-needed surgery.
Marianne ends up incarcerated in a covert military detention center. The violence she suffers there relates more to what may happen in real life than Hollywood disaster movie fiction. A disaster movie becomes a dark survival drama.
“Sexual violence, explicit violence, horror, nudity, bullying, and crude content” run the content advisories issued by the Toronto festival where “New Order” receives its North American premiere on Sept. 13. In this, Franco has not abandoned his unflinching take on the near barbaric cruelty of much humankind, often its ruling classes. “Upper-class behavior will build until a day when everything breaks down,” he warns.