Michel Franco’s latest movie, New Order, opens with a scene of sick people in hospital being forcibly removed from their beds so that people who have been seriously injured in some affray out on the streets can take have them instead.
Up come the credits, and the title and the actors’ names are all jumbly – backwards lettering, everything out of place – but then we settle into what looks like a familiar scene. A high end wedding. The bride and groom (to be, the ceremony hasn’t quite happened) kissing, their parents clucking about, drinks being handed around. Guests arriving and being greeted. Small talk. Behind the scenes the staff beaver away.
And then a poor man turns up at the front gate. His wife was one of the people we just saw being yanked from her bed at the public hospital. He’s the family’s ex driver and he’s back on this auspicious day to beg for their help – money so his wife can get the heart valve operation she needs at the local private hospital, where there is a now a bed waiting for her at a price he can’t afford.
Fluster, commotion, can something be done for him, without, you know, stumping up the 200,000 pesos he says he needs? Various members of the family react in different ways. Give him a good chunk of the money, but obviously not all of it, says one. Give him a couple of notes from your pocket and tell him to be on his way, says another. Or just go and get the money from the stash of wedding-gift cash that’s been steadily arriving all morning. That’s the option that bride-to-be Marianne (Naian González Norvind) opts for. And off she heads to get it.
At which point it all kicks off. The party has been crashed. Someone has been shot dead, just like that, in cold blood. Out on the streets there is uproar, crowds are surging wildly, there is mass looting, people are being killed, a full-bore revolution is underway.
Nothing too spoilerish so far. This is just the scene-setting phase of the film. Writer/director Michel Franco’s real concern isn’t high-end weddings or low-end health care, it’s what happens at moments like this, when whatever passes for law and order breaks down. It isn’t nice. It isn’t fair. Marianne is not rewarded by the cosmos for her attempts to help the driver, even though she’s the nicest member of the family. For those who believe in cosmic ordering or everything being for a reason, Franco’s film is not going to offer much succour.
And for those who believe that the one per cent deserve their day in front of the firing squad, Franco has little in the way of comfort there either. In French revolution style, his portrait of a mass outbreak of chaos shows that death at times like these becomes entirely indiscriminate. You might be safe behind the high walls, or a group of angry protestors might scale those walls and kill you, while your own staff loot your house, smiling fit to bust. Meanwhile, out on the streets, every unsavoury bastard who ever drew breath is making his move. There’s an army. There are armed militias. It’s hard to tell which is worse. Ransoms are demanded and ransoms are paid, and the ransomed person is killed anyway.
It’s a brilliantly tense movie, constructed with precision, in something like the way Steven Soderbergh brought a logic and thoroughness to the construction of Contagion, a story of society breaking down in a pandemic. Soderbergh’s fat-free style might be an influence too. As well as the tiny details that make it all feel real. The camera pulls back from a funeral at the cemetery to reveal that the cemetery is full of other groups of people burying a loved on. It’s as busy as a supermarket car park.
It’s brutal in effect, though there’s little actual brutality on the screen. Franco cuts away at key moments – a man about to be tasered up the anus, for example – to focus on the reaction shots of people who can see what we can not. It’s incredibly effective. We flinch too.
There is no light relief. It is relentless. An incredibly evocative movie unlike any other on the subject and a warning about widening gaps between haves and have-nots in modern societies the world over. Will the people it’s aimed at even watch it, though?
© Steve Morrissey 2021