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► New Order is in UK cinemas from 13 August.
There are few films that have managed to capture the zeitgeist of a tumultuous 2020 more effectively than Mexican director Michel Franco’s sixth feature, New Order. The film may have been conceived, written and shot before the events of 2020 but it brutally exposes, in the ways Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter have also done, the profoundly unjust and alarmingly unempathetic characteristics of a world built on structural inequalities and an unequal distribution of wealth.
Franco deploys the storyline of a lavish wedding to introduce the key family relationships and the institutional culture of corruption that underpins the affluent society that bride Marianne Novello and her husband-to-be Alan are part of. An opening montage of sharp, decontextualised images – including, the close-up of an abstract canvas; a naked woman marked in green paint; green water pouring down a stairway; furniture thrown from a balcony; a body dragged across a floor; green paint thrown at a window as a bride looks out in the other direction – offers a sense of the horrors to come. The accompanying use of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 11 – commemorating the bloody Russian revolution of 1905, which left thousands dead – as well as early narrative developments point to a ticking time bomb: hospital patients abruptly removed from their beds to make space for what the viewer later learns are injured protesters; guests struggling to get through the airport and streets to the wedding.
One of those affected by the hospital clear-out is Elisa, the wife of Rolando, a former employee of Marianne’s family. Rolando turns up unannounced at the family home to request a loan for his wife’s urgent medical treatment, but only Marianne is willing to lend him all the necessary funds. Marianne leaves to find Rolando and pass on the funds for the operation, while the wedding plans are abruptly halted by protesters breaking into the family home, which eerily bears more than a passing resemblance to the palatial glass house of Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite.
New Order’s epic quality marks a shift of direction for Franco. There is a larger cast at the core – from the plethora of wedding guests hustling for deals to the army of servants labouring to construct the spectacle of unrivalled festivities and the prisoners rounded up in the aftermath of the riots. Working again with director of photography Yves Cape – who also lit Chronic (2015) and April’s Daughter (2017) – Franco deploys widescreen and a busy handheld camera that captures both the chaos and the panic that ensues as the revolution on the streets invades the gated community. The signature style of his first four films – sparse dialogue and a single static camera observing the action – has been replaced by an in-yer-face ethos that shapes the film’s first half. The static camera returns in the aftermath of the riots to observe clinically the mess that remains behind.
As in Franco’s previous films, there’s a prioritisation of different points of view. Marianne’s fear and dishevelment as she is held in a clandestine compound while her family is extorted for money to secure her release is balanced with the uncertainty experienced by the Novello family’s driver Cristian and his mother, housekeeper Marta, who are drawn into the proceedings as intermediaries between the family and the kidnappers. Cristian and Marta – nuanced performances by Fernando Cuautle and Mónica del Carmen – do not take sides in the civil protests, but they are shown to be expendable in the greater scheme of intersecting political and military interests that shape the responses to the riots.
Indeed, what Franco demonstrates with shocking candour is that abuses are disproportionately enacted on women, the poor and the marginalised. Marianne’s body becomes a site of ill-treatment, her red wedding suit progressively soiled and shredded – Naian González Norvind gives a terrific performance as the protagonist navigating this veritable blood wedding. Red and green – the dominant colours of the Mexican flag – are deployed by Franco as warning signals. Marianne’s figure in red is a walking target, while green takes over the visual palette of the film as people, cars and houses are bedecked in green paint by the rioters. Franco doesn’t idealise the revolutionaries; violence is brutally sanctioned by them as well as by the military, and at key narrative moments it is not entirely clear whether each constituent group can be clearly demarcated.
The epic, dystopian quality of the film is signalled in the giant abstract canvas by Omar Rodriguez-Graham Only the Dead Have Seen the End of the War – After Tiepolo, which features in close-up in the opening sequence but is later seen in its full gigantic glory, adorning the family home. There is something of Picasso’s Guernica in the film’s urgent brushstrokes – its thematics also signal the horrors of carnage repeated through history. Shades of Haneke and Buñuel also infuse the film’s design – the former’s scorn for the bourgeoisie, the latter’s non-romanticisation of the marginalised.
New Order’s nihilistic ethos makes for tough viewing but its uncompromising vision of a world where brutal deeds don’t always result in positive change acts as a warning of the danger of underestimating the capability of societal structures determined to protect the interests of a select few, whatever the consequences.