What Year is This?: Michel Franco on “New Order”

Michel Franco weighs in on his dystopian provocation “New Order,” winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival.
Leonardo Goi

Michel Franco's New Order is showing exclusively on MUBI in the United Kingdom starting September 10, 2021.

After six features in ten years, Michel Franco’s filmography is now large enough for his latest to court comparisons to his previous works. But both thematically and visually, New Order is something of an outlier. Set in a dystopian present-day Mexico, it’s a chronicle of a revolution gone wrong. Widespread inequalities trigger a mass uprising; the poor turn against the rich, and as the rebellion grows violent, the armed forces seize the opportunity to reinstate their own order, and the uprising turns into a bloodbath.

Entry point into the nightmare is Marianne (Naian González Norvind), a young woman from a wealthy family in Mexico City. New Order opens on her wedding day, and for a while Franco lets us hobnob with the crème de la crème partying at her family’s sumptuous villa, a contingent of impeccably dressed folks all too busy celebrating to notice the signs of the impending apocalypse. Thirty minutes in, and the film shifts gears. Armed protesters crash the party, and the vast platoon of maids, valets, and bodyguards join the rebellion and turn against their bosses. Carnage ensues, and Marianne is eventually kidnapped by soldiers gone rogue. From here on, New Order turns into a rescue mission, as her family—or what remains of it—pulls all their strings to set the daughter free. 

Much of Franco’s cinema is about the various ways in which we carry unresolved traumas into the ruins of our world, a universe peopled by psychically damaged characters marooned between loneliness, grief, and shame. A sister and brother wrestle with the consequences of an unspeakable act in Daniel and Ana; a father succumbs to his thirst for revenge in After Lucia (2012); a social worker must decide whether to harm a child to save her own in Through the Eyes (2014); an inhouse caretaker struggles with a lacerating solitude in Chronic (2015); and a mother frets over her pregnant daughter’s newfound sexuality in April’s Daughter (2017). In all of them, violence (of the physical and/or psychological variety) sneaks in as a syncopated presence, hovering above the frame and only manifesting itself in hiccups. But the scale with which it thrums here, building to a towering crescendo of tortures, executions, and barbarities of all sorts, makes New Order Franco’s most brutal films to date.  

This is a film orphaned by all hope: a vision of humanity mired in violence and internecine hatred (and a far, far cry from the warmth and inter-class solidarity of Cuarón’s Roma). It also marks a rupture from the more contemplative aesthetic that had characterized Franco’s previous works: shot by Yves Cape (who also photographed Chronic), New Order trades static shots for a more pyrotechnic camerawork, rich in handheld sequences and special effects. A few hours before Cate Blanchett’s jury would award him the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, Franco and I sat down to discuss the genesis of his latest, and the film’s relationship with this forsaken year.

NOTEBOOK: I must confess your film caught me completely off guard. After the more domestic, smaller-scale dramas of your last features, this looks like an uncharted territory altogether. 

MICHEL FRANCO: Well, the themes I wanted to explore here ended up dictating the film’s shape. I mean, it’s not like I told myself: “OK, I have to shoot a film with handheld cameras,” or, “I want to have 3000 extras.” It was the other way around. I needed to explore these issues, so I asked myself which form and scale would fit them best. I didn’t begin by thinking: “right, I need to make a bigger film now,” and I think you can always sort of tell when directors do that. When they succumb to their ambitions. Here, it was a different thing—I just did what I had to do to engage with the audience the way I needed to.

NOTEBOOK: I remember when I first met you at the Cartagena Film Festival in 2015, one of the many festivals Chronic showed at that year, you mentioned that writing takes you forever. 

FRANCO: That’s right. Actually, now that I think about it, I was already working on this script back then. Took me this long to finish it.

NOTEBOOK: Would you say the writing process was any different this time around?

FRANCO: Well… [pauses] It was still very long and difficult! I knew I wanted to provide an X-ray of my country, but one that could resonate well beyond Mexico, and not just our neighboring countries. And I knew that, for all this to work, the script needed to factor in lots of different points of view. The film has around eight main characters. You can imagine. It was all… [chuckles] it was all a big mess! It wasn’t easy to find the right way in. An earlier version of the script included flashbacks. We followed Marianne’s family before the uprising. I got rid of all that shortly before shooting began. Two weeks before filming I was still writing. I must have driven my whole team crazy.

NOTEBOOK: This reminds me of another thing you’ve said about Chronic, that the film prompted you to leave plenty of room for improvisation.

FRANCO: Oh, but Chronic was nothing compared to this! It was all a lot easier there, if anything because, well, the scale was different. I was in a room with a nurse and his patients—and that was it, essentially. In New Order there were many more things I just couldn’t improvise, scenes that had to follow a certain design because they’d be retouched in post-production, with the addition of special effects, and so on. That said, there were many other things I was still able to improvise and adjust on the spot. For one thing, the whole military plot wasn’t easy to stitch together. The soldiers you see in the film—they’re all real-life army men, not actors…


FRANCO: Yes, and I relied on them for those parts. They suggested things, and gave recommendations along the way. “This wouldn’t happen in real life,” or: “it wouldn’t unfold like that…” We made tweaks accordingly.  

NOTEBOOK: Visually, the reliance on handheld camerawork is quite a break from the aesthetic of your previous films. I’m thinking of all the static shots in Chronic, but also Daniel & Ana, After Lucia, Through the Eyes...

FRANCO: I think that for the eight perspectives to really click and work together, the film just had to be this dynamic. But the trick is to make sure you don’t realize we’re hopping from one point of view to the other—you just roll with it, as a viewer, and the shifts unfold seamlessly. There are moments when the camera stands still, of course, plus several long takes, too. And there’s a single shot-reverse shot, because I thought that was the best way to capture that specific exchange. But aside from that… I don’t really like solutions that feel that simple. I like things to be more complex, both for my cast and for myself.

NOTEBOOK: I think it’s safe to say you’ve never worked with special effects as much as you have here.

FRANCO: Sure. I mean, the ending of Chronic also featured a special effect, but you’re right, nothing on this scale. We worked on the effects in France, and the whole process took us about a year. We did it there because that’s where my cinematographer [Yves Cape] is based, and he worked with people he trusted. Truth be told, he oversaw the whole thing, and I’d be lying if I told you I knew what he was up to. As in, I knew what I wanted, mind you—I just didn’t really know how to get there.

NOTEBOOK: I was hoping we could address something that strikes me as a leitmotif in your filmography: shame.

FRANCO: Shame?

NOTEBOOK: Yes, I think this is a feeling all your characters since Daniel & Ana grapple with, in different ways and different extents. Marianne too seems to wrestle with something similar, when she realizes nobody in her family is willing to help a long-time employee begging for money for his wife’s hospital bills.

FRANCO: I think it’s got to do with the shame I feel toward the egotistical way we live, which leaves no room for empathy. And in all fairness, I find it more comfortable to address shame rather than guilt, because to make a film out of guilt alone… I fear it would be such a limited perspective. But yes, I think you’re right: shame is a fairly prominent theme in my films. 

NOTEBOOK: New Order feels disturbingly in synch with the pestilential times we live in. I was curious to hear whether all the protests we witnessed over the years you worked on the script ended up shaping your project, in any way.

FRANCO: They didn’t change or influence the film, strictly speaking. It was more a case of us realizing we were on the right track, that the project was urgent, and worth it. But I mean, just picture it: my DOP stranded in France as we watched protesters take to the streets everywhere around the world. We used to tell each other we didn’t need to film anything else: all we needed was happening right on our doorstep. And then Black Lives Matter kicked off. There are moments in the film that look like footage cribbed from those marches, as when Eligio Meléndez’s Rolando gets shot by the armed forces... Look, all of this has gone on for a while, it’s just that cinema hasn’t quite given it as much attention as it deserves. 

NOTEBOOK: I was also quite intrigued by the color of the paint the protesters throw at the wealthy in the early stages of the uprising. Why green? 

FRANCO: Because it’s one of the three colors of the Mexican flag, and I was never going to use red—I thought it’d be too explicitly linked to the idea of blood. That’s what the red blazer Marianne wears is there for. But I also liked the analogy we often draw between green and hope; the contrast that creates here is quite ironic. 

NOTEBOOK: Watching the protests and marches unfold around your apocalyptic Mexico City, I was surprised by the syncretism of all the slogans and messages painted on walls. We see an amalgam of peace signs, graffiti calling for the death to the rich, and slogans of the anti-femicides movement Ni Una Más…

FRANCO: And that’s because everything really is that interlinked. There are so many different reasons why people are protesting around the world, and so many urgent issues we must address, and fail to do so… It’s a conglomeration of causes, and it’s only natural that it should be reflected that way. The yellow vest movement in France is an interesting case study, on that note. We never hear much about who their leaders are, or what their ideology is, exactly. What’s clear is the widespread anger at the status quo, and the need for people to look for ways to express themselves, and protest.

NOTEBOOK: You make what one may label “arthouse films,” but your films have been distributed widely beyond that niche.

FRANCO: Look, my favorite directors are those who reach wide audiences without compromising their artistic vision. To drop some recent names—and avoid going back to the likes of Fellini… Take Lars von Trier, for instance: his films are hardly what you’d call blockbusters, but he does have a following. Or Haneke. I think cinema is only worth it if it tries to reach out to and engage with the audience. Now, I love someone like Pedro Costa, and I appreciate that his cinema is a completely different thing. But as far I’m concerned, I try to make films that can speak to a wide public.

NOTEBOOK: I recently caught up with The Good Girls, by Alejandra Márquez Abella...

FRANCO: Oh yeah, I’ve seen it. 

NOTEBOOK: It’s interesting to see so many recent Mexican films tackle class dynamics in the country. The Good Girls is a great case in point, though I’m assuming someone must have already brought up Cuarón’s Roma.

FRANCO: Yeah, the reference has been made before. But look, Roma is a far more optimistic and hopeful picture. If we had to draw some analogies with Cuarón, I guess New Order would have a lot more to do with Children of Men… [pauses] But if I were to name one Mexican filmmaker I admire the most, that would be Amat Escalante, by a wide margin.

NOTEBOOK: Does it bother you when people refer to New Order a dystopia? 

FRANCO: Oh, no. In fact, I was the one who first gave it the label. I thought it’d be important to clarify this wasn’t a look at Mexico’s current state of affairs, necessarily.

NOTEBOOK: I’m asking because, to return to something we were saying just now, New Order feels almost all too close to reality. 

FRANCO: Yeah… [chuckles]. It certainly does feel like the dystopia is getting closer. We were debating whether to release the film this year or save it for the next one—as you know, there are many directors out there caught in the same limbo. But I felt as though the theme was most topical, especially as I was watching the Black Lives Matter protests unfold. We had to bring the film out there at the first good opportunity. And Venice gave us a tremendous one.

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