By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
Franco is aggressively focused on a contemporary moment of social upheaval where a literal class war is rendered even more nightmarish….”
Michel Franco’s New Order bursts on the screen with a series of almost breath-takingly bold images. A naked woman covered in green, slime-like paint. A hospital’s silent, elderly patients rushed out of their rooms so there is space to cater for seriously injured activists. Most strikingly, perhaps, is a large, brightly colored abstract painting, shown in almost fetishized close detail, which we will soon see dominate the plush home in an upper class gated community in Mexico City, where a wedding is taking place. The painting appears to be Omar Rodriguez-Graham’s 2019 work Solo los muertos han visto el final de la guerra (Después de Tiepolo, 2019), or, translated roughly into English, Only the Dead Have Seen the End of the War (After Tiepolo). The reference to Rococo painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo gestures towards Rodriguez-Graham’s broader art practice, where he takes famous works of art and, through digital intervention, distorts them, exploding them across his own canvas with a determined vision to create a new conversation between the old and the new through his work.
The inclusion of this work (or at least, a copy of it) in New Order feels clear, as Franco is aggressively focused on a contemporary moment of social upheaval where a literal class war is rendered even more nightmarish through the intervention of a corrupt, greedy disciplinary authority – here the military – rampaging with extremely excessive force. Recalling the ‘violence’ integral to Rodriguez-Graham’s historiography-based art practice, France reminds us too: it might look different this time around, but we’ve seen this before, we’re seeing it now, and we’re going to see it again. But of course, it’s the first part of Rodriguez-Graham’s paintings title – Only the Dead Have Seen the End of the War – that reflects even more explicitly why Franco may have chosen this particular work to loom so aggressively over the lengthy opening to his film. Frequently misattributed to Plato due to it being featured as the quote that opens Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001), the words are in fact those of Spanish philosopher George Santayana, perhaps most famous for penning the famous statement, ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. Again, both phrases in their fundamental meaning are directly relevant to the themes that lie at the heart of New Order, but just as important as this subtle nod towards Santayana is the broader pop cultural belief in its false origins. In this world, truth doesn’t matter. It is a luxury that at times even the very wealthy cannot afford.
Of course, Rodriguez-Graham’s work is hardly an instantly recognizable reference point; it was, after all, only painted in 2019, and its inclusion in the film simply may be because it looks nice. But so privileged is the work in the frame that it’s hard not to speculate why this particular painting was included; at the time of writing, neither Franco nor Rodriguez-Graham have discussed the painting’s appearance in the film, so speculate is all we are currently able to do. But even placing all this to the side – and, as suggested, I am unsure if the film itself encourages us to do that – the very aesthetics of the painting, with its bright, abstracted bursts of color and shape, point to something bigger at play in the film: New Order is a carnival-colored nightmare of a society out of control. At the heart of the violent schism that frames the story between the haves and have-nots, we have the military who use their amplified powers not to restore order, but to line their own pockets as they kidnap the wealthy, torture them, dehumanize them, then attempt to sell them back to their families.
All of this – well, all of it outside the grey world where the rape and torture takes place – is shot in almost circus-like candy-coloured hues, a superbly disorienting stylistic choice that brings a superficial perkiness to a world that has gone horribly, horribly askew. At the heart of this lies the soon-to-be-kidnapped bride herself, Marianne (Naian Gonzalez Norvind), who rejects the traditional white wedding dress to celebrate her nuptials, and instead opts for an expensive-looking bright red pant suit. With a strong air of the Ivankas to her, as elegant as Marianne is, there’s something about the combination of her choice of clothing when placed in this world – especially with the backdrop of the Rodriguez-Graham painting – that makes her appear, well, a little clown-like. This world, as familiar as it is and as horrible as it is, is almost goofy. The wealthy have lost their polish; their gaudiness reflects a lack of taste that, as the film unfurls, mirrors a distinct absence of morals, also. Marianne is the exception here, and it is she who suffers for it when she is captured, abused and held for ransom by the military.
As scathing and unfiltered as Franco’s film is – we are firmly in the terrain of ‘subtext is text’ here when it comes to questions of inequality, justice, and the in-built systemic default for those in power to abuse it to their advantage – to ignore the stylistic framework of the film feels almost to entirely miss the point of precisely how this film makes its extraordinary impact. Most immediately – if the bulk of reviews that have addressed the film since it premiered at Venice and, soon after, the Toronto International Film Festival, where I saw it, are anything to go by – it is for reasons that are obvious enough the scenes of torture that are the most memorable simply because they are the most gruelling and harrowing to watch. But the literal color contrast between these scenes and the rest of the film has something monumentally significant to tell us about the lies we tell ourselves through glossy surfaces; this sunny world of flowers in bloom, of vibrant, rainbow-hued buildings, and bright, multi-colored tents in public squares that add a circus-like quality to what is makeshift emergency housing is no less shocking, no less cruel, no less vicious than the one we see in the compound where Marianne and so many like her are held and tortured.
It is this point that, despite the highbrow world of fine art with which I opened here, that I ultimately turned to a far uncultured point of reference, but the philistine in me stands as assertively in my parallel here as I do with the significance of Rodriguez-Graham’s painting. From those opening moments where we see a hospital full of suffering bodies covered in blood and green goo and the striking image of that naked woman showered in the same substance, for those of us of a certain generation it’s hard to not make the somewhat embarrassing parallel with the famous green slime used in the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards. Lifted from the cult Canadian kids sketch comedy show You Can’t Do That On Television (1979-1990), the ‘sliming’ was a running gag: any time a cast member said “I don’t know”, an unseen bucked of the neon green sludge would empty above them, covering the performer in disgusting goop. The joy of this sliming would, in the Nickelodeon Awards’ hands, move to a more famous victim as the years passed, including Katy Perry to Johnny Depp (Wikipedia even has a section on the Awards’ page, “Slimed celebrities”).
As silly as my mental association with a film as intense and ideologically determined as New Order with something as fluffy as You Can’t Do That On Television and its legacy, my own subjective reference based episode of connect-the-dots stayed with me throughout the film in a way I am highly confident the director did not by any means intend. New Order is not shy in the way it suggests we have been here before, the iconic Angel of Independence memorial dedicated to those who fought in the Mexican War of Independence against the Spanish from 1808-1821 central to one of the most memorable scenes of mass civil unrest depicted in the entire film. As the green paint becomes more and more symbolic of the major social uprising against a controlling, inequitable society in New Order, it is the splashing of Marianne’s car with the substance that literally takes her off her path, hurling her into a situation well beyond that which she is used to in her opulent, comfortable upper-class life. As compassionate as she tries to be to those less well off than she – it is in fact this empathy that places her in harm’s way – there’s a teasingly playful yet absolutely bleak, darkly comical sense that Marianne herself got slimed for not knowing how the 99% live, for not knowing how precisely the system is rigged, for not knowing that the military are not there to protect you. While I’m pretty comfortable placing a hefty bet on the fact that Cannes Film Festival award-winning filmmaker Michel Franco is probably not a big fan of You Can’t Do That on Television, in terms of my own experience of watching the film and my own engagement with its tug-of-war between the carnivalesque tensions of playfulness and the grotesque, the more lowbrow, mass-market history of this green slime feels almost too perfect a fit.
Thoroughly exhausting and simultaneously exhilarating…. triggers the sensation of trying to cry when you’ve run out of tears”
Ultimately, the violence inherent to New Order is as much stylistic as it is contained within the horrific actions that we see play out on screen. We are assaulted not only by these images of shocking violence, but a more subtle yet unrelenting tonal mismatch between the gleeful, multi-colored magazine-slick surface of this world and unambiguous and unrestrained brutality that is contained within it. But it’s the twisted familiarity of this precise combination – the never-ending drumbeat of mediated, glittery pomp and splendour that normalizes corruption, inequality and state-sanctioned violence every single day – that makes New Order so thoroughly exhausting and simultaneously exhilarating. New Order triggers the sensation of trying to cry when you’ve run out of tears, its title alone articulating something beyond fury, beyond grief, beyond a dream for a better world. Strip away the circus-like fanfare of its aesthetics, and New Order is no cinematic experiment in dystopian carnivalesque, it’s something much, much worse: it’s just how things are.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has written six books on cult, horror and exploitation film including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the Bram Stoker Award nominated Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019), and the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). Alexandra is a board member of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a programmer at Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the United States. Her most recent book is 1000 Women in Horror: 1895-2018 (BearManor Media, 2020).