A cold and sometimes overly intellectual filmmaker, Franco knows how to make an audience squirm. That’s part of the bargain when we buy a ticket to one of his movies. In “After Lucia,” he asked viewers — trapped in their seats, helpless to intervene — to observe a vulnerable teen’s life go off the rails after a video of her having drunken sex went viral. In “Chronic,” he spotlighted the emotional burden society heaps upon hospice nurses, with tragic results.
But how many people actually saw these films? Now, in Franco’s sixth feature, the director demands the public’s attention, launching a full-on assault on our collective comfort zone while doubling down on the very thing that makes his films unwatchable for so many. Moviegoing is, by its nature, an act of empathy, as we invest in the lives of fictional strangers, trusting the narrative to repay our emotional commitment — and yet, in film after film, Franco challenges that assumption. Perversely, for those who’ve now come to expect that from him, “New Order” doesn’t disappoint.
Inspired by waves of civil unrest sweeping the globe, this ambitious exercise imagines how such a people’s revolution might manifest if it hit Mexico City, and in so doing, it both anticipates and amplifies the protests that have been taking place around the world in recent months. That makes “New Order” incredibly timely but also uniquely upsetting, since it feels theoretical at a moment when entire societies are expressing real pain. Essentially picking up where “The Joker” left off, this ultra-provocative case of speculative fiction promises a view of what change might look like, only to succumb to a deep sense of cynicism as the scope of the film becomes unmanageable.
“New Order” focuses on a wealthy white family caught up in the middle of a violent coup. After a short, surreal montage of the carnage to come — pandemonium in a hospital, corpses smeared in bright green paint and garish red blood (those colors a perversion of the Mexican flag) — Franco shifts his attention to a private wedding ceremony. These festivities are being held within the walled confines of a well-connected businessman’s home. His daughter Marianne (Naian González Norvind) has just been married, which distracts the family from the protests happening outside.
Still, there are small, uneasy indicators that this happy event may be out of sync with the national mood — like, say, house parties during a pandemic, or fall film festivals while so much of the world remains on lockdown. Marianne’s mother turns on her bathroom faucet, and the water runs green. A guest arrives splattered in paint, attacked en route by the mob. A beloved (if semi-forgotten) former employee named Rolando (Eligio Meléndez) shows up at the door, begging financial assistance for his wife, who needs an operation.
These intrusions undercut the relatively decadent mood, although only Marianne seems to prioritize them above her own party — which says a lot about her character but may also be Franco’s way of rigging how we feel toward the entire group. Many will not survive the movie, shot by demonstrators in the blunt, often senseless acts of violence that follow. As audiences, we typically expect that movie deaths should be meaningful, or at least somewhat dignified, but Franco (who models many of his stylistic choices on that most austere of auteurs, Michael Haneke) denies us that satisfaction.
Once the protesters cross the threshold of the home, there are no assurances. Although Franco may have invested half an hour in observing the revelers, nearly all white, they’re little more than symbols of oppression to the intruders, who are mostly native/indigenous in a deliberate statement about the color divisions in Mexican culture. These early scenes are terrifying — and totally convincing — in their frigidity, although Franco has introduced the family members in such a way that we may feel some “deserve” what’s coming to them more than others. Marianne has been fortunate in that she was touched by Rolando’s situation, leaving the party with his nephew Cristian (Fernando Cuautle) before the bloody home invasion. She sincerely wants to assist Rolando’s wife, and that show of kindness ought to protect her as the pair try to make their way through the turmoil unfolding outside.
Until now, Franco has worked on a relatively intimate scale, and it seems as if here he may not be equipped to depict the sheer magnitude of the uprising, but he surprises us once the film’s point of view leaves the house: Police blockades and radio broadcasts suggest what’s happening, and then suddenly, in a series of shocking tableaux, he reveals the extent of the looting.
Imagine the scene of the Corpus Christi massacre in “Roma” — the student demonstrations that start in the streets before forcing their way into the center of the frame as the family is shopping for a crib — expanded to feature length, and it will give you some idea of how it feels to watch “New Order.” The story begins within the sphere of the family but is ruptured by the protests, and in the second half, with the world turned upside down, Franco ventures into completely unprecedented terrain. Politically speaking, this is the most incendiary part of the film, and by far the most unpleasant, as Marianne is captured by revolutionaries, abused and ransomed in a stretch that implies that the “new order” of the film’s title is even more corrupt than the last.
This is where the mercifully short film loses its way, descending into “Salò”-like nastiness — including but by no means limited to a scene of a detainee being sodomized with a cattle prod — as Franco shares his vision of human depravity. As in the attack on Marianne’s family, sound effects fill in the horrors the director withholds from view.
Bleak as his worldview may be, Franco has always respected the audience’s intelligence, and here, he must be aware that our allegiances may well be with the protesters, not a one of whom is treated like a fully realized character. Given the way such demonstrations have actually unfolded of late — whether it’s the Black Lives Matter marches in the U.S., the Yellow Vests in France or pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong — it’s an incongruous and somewhat infuriating choice to depict the Mexican equivalent from the point of view of the 1%, framed to exploit the fear of those in power.