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LFF 2020: ‘New Order’ Review: A Sadistic Lesson in Cataclysmic Class Warfare

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Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. So says Michel Franco, back on the festival circuit with another devastatingly bleak tale of human suffering within inhumane societies. With New Order, however, Franco widens his scope considerably, and weaves in violent, epic developments while crafting a stinging rebuke of the idealized “revolution.”

Some have called the film racist, some have called it genius, many have drawn comparisons between its take on class warfare and similarly-themed works – that this is a popular impulse itself suggests New Order plays more like a collage of other film’s points than a coherent statement. That said, the subject matter invites comparison, so let’s compare: where the film evokes the likes of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, David Zonana’s Workforce, and even Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Saló, this macabre formula mostly succeeds. Unfortunately, at times New Order also recalls aspects of the racist travesty No Escape and the confounding, inane misconceptions of Joker. The effect is perplexing, though slivers of genuine insight redeem the experience somewhat.

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Franco approaches the story as a tale of two vastly different worlds, one existing directly above the other. That’s a fairly apt description of real-life Mexico City, in which wealth disparities are strikingly apparent – all the more so because of the rigid demographic correlation between skin color and financial success. Almost unwaveringly, rich tends to mean lighter-skinned, and poor tends to mean darker-skinned, a disarmingly clear dynamic lightly interrogated in Cuarón’s Roma, but front-and-center in New Order.

The film cleverly keeps its eyes on the sheltered world of the rich for most of its opening scenes, only allowing small pieces of information to filter in from the outside world through the high walls and blasé worldviews of these fanciful elite. Two wealthy families are celebrating their offspring’s wedding, and everyone is determined not to let any peripheral bother disrupt their gala. That peripheral bother, however, is “the revolution” of lore. Franco ignores the exact catalyst or intention of the movement in favor of a metaphorical depiction of this long-awaited uprising, in which “the underprivileged” decide to fight back, and to take “the overprivileged” down, for good.

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The problem is, while Franco’s argument regarding this societal narrative is actually a salient, albeit nihilistic one, that the manner he adopts to make it is turgid and overcomplicated. The Parasite of it all resides mostly in the first section, in which the rich partygoers are faced with multiple chances to help poor associates and servants whose lives are being upended nearby as public hospitals are overrun and phone lines are cut off. The details of these interactions are very well-measured; Franco injects numerous subtleties into the dialogue and behavior which demonstrate how the elite are openly uninterested in their employees’ well-being. Even if they show some compassion, many still treat their domestic staff like objects to degrade, command, or ignore at their whim, and though some of these scenes are difficult to watch, the outrage against such vile inhumanity is palpable and compelling.

Quickly, however, the revolution makes itself heard, seen, and felt, as militant rebels burst into the party, and begin dispatching murderous ‘justice’ left and right. The filmmaking suddenly becomes significantly more intense and thrilling as New Order shifts into a very different dystopia, in which the streets are overrun with hails of bullets and sadism… before skipping to the next morning, when the military has stepped in and asphyxiated the uprising. A grotesque but serene montage then depicts Mexico City landmarks strewn with corpses and graffiti; remnants of a squashed rebellion. Military personnel wander around, gleefully taking full advantage of martial law; if you have ever wanted to see a soldier double-tap a dead child in the brain, look no further. 

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This discomfiting image sets a tone that New Order maintains for the rest of its runtime, as it transitions into a combination of bureaucratic nightmare and Saló-esque torture drama. On the first track, we follow poor worker Cristian (Fernando Cuautle) and his family, who face totalitarian measures in order to find work in this new society. On the other, we follow Marian (Naian González Norvind), the bride-to-be from the opening party, who is abducted by military forces in the revolution’s aftermath; her family searches for her, trying to use their means as leverage to ensure her release. Franco’s point boils down to these two individuals; one rich, one poor, but both ultimately at the mercy of the one true power in society. Cristian faces abject dehumanization in his efforts to find work, despite the already-come revolution, while Marian gets what many might feel is comeuppance for her wealthy status as she and other abducted elites are ceaselessly raped and tormented by soldiers in a remote prison. Franco structures New Order as a frightening reminder that neither outcome is as satisfying or as liberating as contemporary revolutionaries might hope.

The result is quite interesting in theory, but never thorough enough to make a serious impact. Franco’s theses spiral in so many different directions that none of them manage to follow through on their implications; certain threads suggest the rich deserve malice, others suggest they are just like everyone else, deep down. Certain ideas suggest society is not about money, nor race, but violence, others suggest money is the one true power. Little of it coheres, and though the combination of theories could have compelled an intriguing discussion on their respective merits, New Order just seems like an exercise in showboating rather than rumination.

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As a final point, there is indeed an uncomfortable sloppiness regarding the mechanics of the revolt itself, which problematically imply that the darker-skinned poor have adopted tactics of savagery and mindless attrition. This approach fails to give credit nor acknowledgement to existing, genuine calls for reform and less violent revolution that have gone unheeded both by the rich and by artists (perhaps such as Franco) who refuse to take them seriously. Instead, films like this delight in depicting societal tension, but throw up their hands at the question of societal change, making this an occasionally gripping but overly self-satisfied piece.

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