starring Naian Gonzaléz Norvind, Dario Yazbek Bernal, Mónica Del Carmen, Sebastian Silveti
written and directed by Michel Franco
starring Francisco Barreiro, Luisa Pardo, Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez, Teresa Sánchez
directed by Nicolás Pereda
by Bill Chambers I'd heard that Michel Franco's New Order was the new Parasite but from the rich people's P.O.V., and I'm here to tell you that Parasite from the rich people's P.O.V. wouldn't be Parasite. Still, I did find the basic premise of New Order quite promising as social commentary: In Mexico City, mounting class resentments spark an uprising against aristocracy on the same day a local heiress is due to be married. I imagined a modern-day storming of the Bastille, but this is a film, for better or worse, of 21st-century ideas, and it introduces a wrinkle into our eat-the-rich fantasies--military intervention--that becomes a tsunami. An elderly man (Eligio Meléndez) who used to work for the family of the bride, Marianne (Naian Gonzaléz Norvind), shows up at the wedding claiming his sick wife needs money for an operation. (If you watch HBO's "Succession", you know the kind of territory he's wading into.) The mother (Lisa Owen) wants to help but is cowed by the guests' stinginess, while Marianne's brother (Diego Boneta) tips him like a bellhop and expects him to shoo. They're unwittingly justifying the fury of the vandals and looters advancing on their home; only Marianne is truly sympathetic to the old man's plight, going so far as to leave her own wedding (with one of the help in tow) to pick up his wife and drive her to the hospital. But during her absence, the military hatches a diabolical plan to manipulate the situation so as to solidify the caste system rather than see it evolve: they will abduct any wealthy citizens who've strayed from home--mostly the younger set, which leads to a lot of youthful flesh being exploitatively displayed as hostages are stripped naked and hosed down--and ransom them back to family members, pinning the responsibility for these kidnappings on the protestors.
I haven't seen any of Franco's previous films, but he has been mentioned in the same breath as Michael Haneke on numerous occasions. Although I can see why, the comparison would be a superficial one here, applying mainly to the picture's grim trajectory and savage peaks of violence. In that sense, however, you might as well draw a line to Ari Aster. Say what you will about Haneke's reputation as a scold, but his movies invite viewers to morally interrogate themselves. With New Order, I found myself trying too hard to see beyond its primitive racial coding (the pivotal family is white; the protestors are brown) and dead-end nihilism to even begin to engage with it on a vicarious level. Yes, the fascist imagery is both timely and triggering. Yes, the film does take the recent trend of police planting false flags to undermine peaceful movements like Black Lives Matter to its logical end. Yet the clever and horrifying what-if scenario that is New Order's raison d'être doesn't stand up to scrutiny, not only because of the risibly compressed timetable over which the events of the movie unfold, but also, I think, because there just aren't enough players involved in the game. Enablers of evil though armies can be, the buck seldom stops there.
Coincidentally, I followed up New Order with Nicolás Pereda's Fauna, a bone-dry absurdist comedy about a young couple, Paco (Francisco Barreiro) and Luisa (Luisa Pardo), visiting Luisa's parents for the first time in some depressed mining town in Mexico. For the first few minutes of this miraculously short (70 minutes) feature, they're frantically searching for a signal, presaging the static interference that makes connecting with others a challenge throughout the film. Paco and Luisa are struggling actors--Paco recently had a non-speaking role on "Narcos" that will be expanded in future seasons, he assures. Luisa's father (José Rodríguez) and deadbeat brother, Gabino (Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez), take Paco to a bar and ask him to perform a scene from his TV show. He explains that he didn't have any lines, but they don't care, so he recreates a scene entirely of reaction shots for them. When he's finished, they're still waiting for him to start. They tell him to improvise something from scratch, with dialogue, and the sequence becomes more and more preposterous (and hilarious) without, somehow, distorting or sacrificing the characters' humanity. As any prank show will confirm, Paco's compliance is funny 'cause it's true.
Later, in the film's dreamier second half, a man (Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez again) who's accused of breaking into a woman's hotel room denies it until he's told he fits the description the woman (Pardo again) gave. Then he wants to know, how did she describe me? How do people see us? Fauna is cleaved down the middle, switching to an adaptation of the book Gabino is reading--but only to the extent that Paco is actually reading it, meaning his reality bleeds through the gaps in his attention span. The transition reminded me of Bi Gan's Long Day's Journey Into Night, in which the hero falling asleep reboots the plot, though Fauna's comic rewards are more significant than that film's dramatic ones, and my friend and I have since marvelled over its elegant construction, its narrative payoffs within and without. (In a droll meta twist, Barreiro really is a regular on "Narcos".) Not bad for a movie without an official screenplay credit. New Order - Programme: Contemporary World Cinema; Fauna - Programme: Wavelengths