Michel Franco’s New Order (or Nuevo Orden in its original Spanish) traveled quite the prestige film festival circuit last year, premiering at the Venice Film Festival and subsequently included in the Toronto International Film Festival, the London Film Festival, AFI Fest and many more. Now, the film arrives in theaters and, in what feels like a rare misstep for festivals usually so reliable in their film selections, I’m left scratching my head as to what all these esteemed film organizations saw in this needlessly brutal, disappointingly flat commentary on social order, class and inequality. With all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, New Order seems to be aiming for something insightful and provocative and just ends up in a quagmire of messy dead ends that not only don’t help the film’s message but potentially actively harm its overall impact.
Set in contemporary Mexico, Franco’s story begins innocently enough, introducing us to a well-to-do family celebrating the wedding of their daughter, Marianne (Naian González Norvind), to Alan (Darío Yazbek Bernal), two beautiful young people certainly destined for greatness in whatever they choose to pursue, such is their privilege. The modern home is filled with other beautiful people, as Marianne’s parents welcome their guests and worry about why the judge performing the ceremony is so uncharacteristically late. Though everything seems to be going as planned with the event, there’s a clear upstairs/downstairs dynamic happening here, the family’s kitchen filled with caterers and servers on hand to tend to the guests and circulate the appetizers and champagne.
And something else is going on, too, as rumblings of a disturbance happening outside the family’s enclave start to creep into the party. A guest arrives with green paint splattered on her designer dress, a seemingly small bit of collateral damage as they made their way through the city and whatever protests are happening on the streets. Soon, Rolando (Eligio Meléndez), a former employee of the family shows up on their doorstep on this happy occasion, asking for the money he needs for his wife’s emergency surgery. Kind, generous people that they are, Marianne and her mother, Rebeca (Lisa Owen), try to help him as best they can, but it’s clear even they won’t be able to come up with the money he needs. It’s somewhere around this point in the film that Franco makes a curious choice in his narrative: instead of something nuanced and pointed, a story about the haves and have nots and how their very different worlds are destined to collide in ugly and frustrating ways, the filmmaker apparently decides to just go whole hog into a dystopian collapse of society, the oppressed storming the castle and burning down (or murdering) everything in their way.
The film finds some semblance of scope as it expands beyond the confines of the wedding party; in an effort to help Rolando herself, Marianne leaves the house with Christian (Fernando Cuautle), another of their employees who can help her navigate the ever more dangerous streets overrun by demonstrators. But this only ends poorly for Marianne, as she’s kidnapped by the rebels and finds herself in a cruel prison where she’s abused and forced to make a ransom video to help her captors extort money from her wealthy family. As everyone’s situation deteriorates (and more people die), the film seems to lose whatever sense of direction it started off with; it’s next to impossible to care about the fate of Rolando or his wife, Marianne or her fiancé, or anyone Franco introduces us to, as the only goal in any of it seems to be to pound it into our heads that nothing matters and it’s all going to end anyway, so burn it down and eat the rich.
He’s not wrong, of course, but that doesn’t mean we have to enjoy 90 minutes of bloodshed, rape, arson and every other destructive indulgence his characters engage in. I certainly didn’t.
New Order is now playing in theaters.
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