AFI Fest 2020: New Order, by Scott Nye
Michel Franco, despite his considerable gifts at staging and mounting tension, has not proven thus far to be the most intellectually thorough filmmaker, and though I largely like the work of his I’ve seen, I recognize the degree to which it rarely amounts to more than looking at the audience with an arched eyebrow and asking, with a somewhat audience-shaming (or -baiting, if you like) tone, “well what are you gonna do about it?”
The gambit, I wager, worked better with school bullying in After Lucia, almost ludicrously (though certainly, um…strikingly) in Chronic, and almost impossibly in New Order, a film far too expansive for its modest running time. Introducing us to about a half-dozen key characters gathered at a lavish house (some to celebrate, some to work, some to beg) for a wedding. Marianne (Naian González Norvind) is the daughter of a wealthy Mexican businessman, the family treating her at once like the pride of the lot and another asset to be controlled; when their former employee Rolando (Eligio Meléndez) arrives, asking for a loan so he can pay for his wife’s life-changing surgery, she is the only one who makes an earnest effort to help him, through the process of which she finds how little access she has to her own assets.
These concerns will quickly become of limited import to everyone as a protest movement – minutes ago regarded as little more than a traffic jam – quickly descends upon the party, pillaging whatever they can get their hands on and murdering indiscriminately to make a point. The context of such a movement hardly needs introduction in this day and age, but I use the collective pronoun here as a suitable way to describe Franco’s disassociation from the uprising. While we quickly get to know the names and personalities of the upper crust, the mob remains fairly faceless. Even after they kidnap, imprison, and tortune Marianne, the camera remains fixed on her and those like her; whatever the uprising is thinking seems largely besides Franco’s central concern.
It is perhaps worth noting, too, that Franco takes the same privileged position in interviews surrounding the film, calling out not the effect wealth inequality has on its present victims, but the effect it may someday have on, well, other rich people. “We shouldn’t accept the way things are as normal,” he told Screen Daily, “and to me it’s a time bomb that’s going to explode in our face sooner rather than later.” The “our” is very telling. Franco perches a lot on Rolando to carry the audience’s sympathy for the downtrodden, but Rolando is not among those rising up; as he struggles to get his wife the care he needs, he increasingly becomes one of their victims.
The question from here becomes whether Franco owes a violent mob some degree of personhood, but the question seems to me a far more interesting revelation than the answer could be. Franco is, to a degree, not making his films for the unsettled masses. An overview of the box office receipts of his collective filmography is almost absurd; even the modest success After Lucia enjoyed in his home country is at once noteworthy in the context of his filmography and yet still revealing of the limits of his reach. Like most international filmmakers on the festival circuit, Franco’s films reach their peak with those audiences, most of whom enjoy at least a modicum of privilege, many of whom could count as wealthy. To some degree, a warning to his peers might be in order.
Cinematic excitement notwithstanding, though, Franco treats the mass violence as an inevitable outgrowth of inequality, and while history has had its share of such uprisings, they tend to be a great deal more complex than cutting straight to storming the castle. Where they come up most frequently are in conversations privileged people have about what poor people will do to them. Franco’s acceptance that this will one day happen is a blithe simplification of the complex politics, negotiations, and personal experience surrounding such violence, of which Franco evinces almost no direct understanding or curiosity.
And this is where the film’s otherwise-refreshing 80-minute-before-credits runtime becomes a liability. There is simply no room for or effort expended on whatever political machinations are churning along here. The Mexican army seems somewhat split in their loyalties; there seems to be a coup d’etat at some point; later, some faction of the army seems to reassert itself in a rather dramatic fashion; towards the end, casual accusations become cemented as legal fact. Franco might have the answers to these, or he may just be playing loosely with the aesthetics of revolution, government cover-up, military power, and revolutionary actions. “What are you gonna do about it?” only goes so far when the filmmaker stops so short.