The Anti-Utopia of an Epoch without Utopia


New Order - a socio-political art thriller from Mexican director Michel Franco, fêted with the Grand Jury Prize at 2020’s Venice Film Festival - is much less radical than it thinks it is.

New Order - a socio-political art thriller from Mexican director Michel Franco, fêted with the Grand Jury Prize at 2020’s Venice Film Festival - is much less radical than it thinks it is. Franco describes it as a dystopian movie; but even this, as we shall see, is not exactly right. Its opening third, which slowly builds up tension amid a high-society wedding for wealthy Marianne Novelo (Naian González Norvind as the closest the film gets to a protagonist), soon descends into a nightmare of revolutionary violence and martial rule as protesters infiltrate the lavish venue and wider society breaks down.

Predictably, the film has been praised by the Guardian for its ‘confrontational severity’ and ‘cynicism’, opining ‘that a real-life revolution might well be every bit as ugly, horrifying and un-Hollywood as this shows’; and BFI’s Sight and Sound magazine hailed it as an ‘uncompromising vision of late-stage capitalism.’ But by adopting the subject-position of a sympathetic but naive member of the bourgeoisie, while reducing popular forces to a vicious mob, Franco immediately reveals the film’s reactionary implications. New Order is essentially an appeal to the better natures of the global elite to exercise a bit of noblesse-oblige before things get too out of hand; an anti-Utopia that plays visions of social collapse against the impulse to emancipation.

New Order is essentially an appeal to the better natures of the global elite to exercise a bit of noblesse-oblige before things get too out of hand.

Technically, the film has three core perspectives - that of the aforementioned Marianne’s travails as high-value prisoner of the new regime; that of two of her family’s workers, Marta and Cristian; and that of the surviving members of Marianne’s family, sheltering with other military, corporate, and political elites at a stable compound - but the latter two are nevertheless defined by the first, their minimal plots orbiting Marianne’s extortion after she’s separated from her wedding at the end of the first act. It is immediately notable what is missing here: New Order offers no point of identification with the revolutionaries, who are solely depicted as ransacking wild people. Beyond the love of lucre - the maid deliriously stripping the wedding’s coat rack and bedside tables - there is no sense of revolutionary elan, joy, or righteousness. To make matters worse, Marta and Cristian, who are the film’s only proxy for the non-militant working public, are passive objects in the plot: to the extent they do things, they ask for help, ferret around Marianne, and are a voiceless go-between for the revolutionary militia and the Novelo family as they attempt to negotiate a ransom.

Beyond the love of lucre - the maid deliriously stripping the wedding’s coat rack and bedside tables - there is no sense of revolutionary elan, joy, or righteousness.

The only sense of justification we get for the chaos is delivered through the presence of Rolando, a long-time ex-employee of the Novelos, who has come to borrow 200,000 pesos for the emergency heart transplant needed for his dying wife, Elisa. After pitiful attempts at philanthropy by her mother and brother, provoking Rolando’s departure, Marianne is determined to take him some of her wedding money, setting off with Cristian toward his house. (Cristian is, incidentally, Rolando’s nephew, in a Parasite-esque family tree of domestic servants.) The negligence with which Marianne’s family treat Rolando’s urgent request is a perfect depiction of capitalism’s warped priorities, the vacant imperative to ‘get back to the party’ here outweighing the immediate demand of human need, metonymic of the systemic privileging of obscene luxury over more direct use-values. But by the same token, Marianne’s decision to do the only morally defensible thing in the circumstances conjures an overinflated sympathy for her character that unravels the film’s initial critical footing.

This sequence of events serves to do two things. First, it separates Marianne from her family and thus inaugurates the central narrative problem of her kidnapping. Secondly, though, it also embodies the film’s cautionary tale: Marianne embodies the Good Bourgeoisie, those equipped, despite the odds, with a conscience, whose principled act is then derailed by the chaos of the revolution (she never ends up reaching Rolando, and both he and Elisa die). Marianne was too late to help Rolando, her family having palmed him off, the anger he symbolised exploding in the streets; just as Franco suggests it may be too late for the ruling class as a whole to discharge their humanist obligations in order to ward off a collapse of the status quo. The old trick of the protagonist as the directorial stand-in therefore appears here in a telling form.

In Mubi’s post-credits interview, Franco makes it clear that the fear the film articulates emerged from his own observations of neoliberalism’s morbid symptoms, lumping together right-wing extremism, the Yellow Vests, and Black Lives Matter protests as evidence of a disintegrating order. He is also clear that the causes of such symptoms lie in the massive concentration of wealth and its attendant perpetuation of needless human suffering. For him, the message of the film is clear: ‘we need to listen to people who are in need’ so as ‘to avoid extremes’. But it is precisely in this ‘we’ - ‘the upper class […] the ones who can change things,’ and who are ‘not doing that’ - and the imperative to avoid ‘extreme’ challenges to their order, that the limitations of New Order lie.

In Franco’s analysis, the agency of the poor is either non-existent - awaiting moral epiphany on the part of the global elite or, when it exists, catastrophic, leading only to unstructured vengeance.

In Franco’s analysis, the agency of the poor is either non-existent - awaiting moral epiphany on the part of the global elite, ignoring precisely those mechanisms of accumulation that prohibit such kindness - or, when it exists, catastrophic, leading only to unstructured vengeance and eventual decomposition into authoritarian rule (either by military counter-coup, or by their own doing; New Order is, tellingly, not bothered with demarcating too strongly here between these two). Franco, of course, defends himself by assuring viewers that the film skewers ‘every part of society’ - ‘the military, the working class, the upper class’ - but in a world as polarised as ours, this cop-out does nothing but defend the established system. The nihilism noted by Western media outlets is thus expressive both of the jouissance of the cynical ‘one who knows’, and of the disavowal of the antagonisms, the washing one’s hands of a conflict that is non-negotiable, whether one knows it or not. It is significant in this respect that the film’s issues were not ignored by critics nor the general public in Mexico: it received condemnation from the executive director of a nationwide anti-racism organisation for its stereotypical depiction of the protesters, and as Arturo Magana Arce objects in Cine Premiere, the film’s pearl-clutching thematics ‘gives reason to those who judge people whom, in a desperate way, reclaim justice from the streets.’ Those with the most reason for a jaded realism, then - the victims of genuine violence from the imperial core and its national beneficiaries - are those, by the very same token, most liable to penetrate Franco’s reactionary approximation of it.

No doubt New Order has been referred to as ‘timely’. This is correct, but not quite in the way Franco and his publicists intend. Sure, it trains an eye on contemporary inequalities, realism now serving as marketing speak; but I think it is also - and perhaps more so - reflective of capitalism’s recent soul-searching: the Davos ilk’s call for a Great Reset, the fears of Silicon Valley elites materialised in Aotearoa New Zealand apocalypse bunkers, and the centrist conflation of left and right populisms as equally illegitimate extremes. This flattening out of the lines of struggle has the double effect of positioning the existing as the only plausible instance of social stability - the Burkean ‘all-in’ against the apocalyptic non-space of alternatives - and of a moment of revelation: Franco sees the portent of collapse when others do not, with this, like other soothsayers, only shoring up his own position in the field. In contrast to Joker or Parasite, New Order eschews identification with the little guy in favour of playing out social collapse from the viewpoint of the rich. And while this narrative focus doesn’t necessarily occlude subversive potential, Franco never takes the chance to reverse allegiances or satirise the bourgeois imaginary (as in, for instance, Jordan Peele’s Us). As a dystopia, then, it is a peculiar one: here the corporatocracy are not the handmaidens, but the rest of us are, and its central injunction is essentially preventative, one that seeks to avoid a future tragedy coming to pass. And in this, too, another of the basic moves of dystopian fiction - that the horrible future is already here- is also betrayed.

The family serves as the reified sphere of the ‘personal’, whose disruption tediously thematises the slide toward totalitarianism that is held to be inherent in any project of attempted emancipation.

For this reason, we should resolutely contest the film’s designation as dystopian. The function of ‘critical dystopia’, which combines both the ‘if this should continue’ of a ‘proleptic realism’, and a metaphorical intensification of existing disaster in a nightmare surrealism, in which a utopian allegiance to social transformation is implicit, is displaced by what Jameson calls the anti-Utopia: the 1984 s and Brave New World s ‘informed by a central passion to denounce and to warn against Utopian programs in the political realm.’1 In other words, what anti-Utopia does is to detach that proleptic realism and attach it to the doomed hopes of utopian forces themselves; the slippery slope of ‘demanding the impossible.’ From this perspective, it is not insignificant that Franco ensures the revolution intervenes at a wedding. The family serves here as the reified sphere of the ‘personal’, whose disruption by the political Event tediously thematises the slide toward totalitarianism that, from the Jacobins to the Bolsheviks, is held to be inherent in any historical project of attempted emancipation. That the challenge to reunify the family propels the narrative emotionally and structurally is demonstrative of a bourgeois sentimentality that obscures the unit’s existence as a state apparatus, not just in the sense of the circuit of social reproduction but, at the elite level of the Novellos, also as the vehicle for the reproduction of dynastic power.

If one contrasts this to Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, a film which is able to articulate a general crisis of capitalism through the disruption of the level of biological reproduction, the crisis of fertility standing-in for the no-future of ecological, social, and economic collapse - the limits of New Order’s conception both of the causes and fixes of its ‘dystopia’ are obvious. Where the former establishes the problem as one of root-and-branch significance, positioning it as the sterility of a whole form of life, the latter works within the technocratic coordinates of inequality, a discourse perfectly amenable to capital in its mode of self-correction. The deliberate closure of the field of political possibilities that marks the anti-Utopia is here married to the truncation of the ‘threats’ it responds to: the persistence of the family against the oscillations of a distributional conflict such that New Order is the anti-Utopia of an epoch without utopia; a 1984 for Fukuyama’s end of history. The grand ideological struggles shrink into administrative conflict, and any expressions of left militancy are to be curtailed in favour of a staid reformism.

Indeed, this raises a further point on its mistaken ‘timeliness’. Franco repeats in Mubi’s interview that this collapse may happen soon, but this totally misunderstands the stillbirth of the future under contemporary capitalism. As Mark Fisher wrote in his analysis of Children of Men, its truth comes in the recognition that the world ends not with a bang but with a whimper, ‘coffee bars and internment camps’ co-existing, precisely because of the historic weakness of the working-classes.2 What is paradoxical is that, by deliberately avoiding the representation of collective power, Children of Men maintains a fidelity to it; recall that it only exists as the pseudo-mythical, stateless ‘human project’, whose ship (maybe? possibly? hopefully?) appears dimly through the mist of destruction in the final scene. Franco’s inversion of this problematic - the bang of ‘divine violence’ that cannot but turn into its opposite, in place of the whimper that marks the absent space of necessity - betrays his ultimate conservatism. Because despite our multiple concatenating crises, we are nowhere near a revolutionary precipice. And it is this - contra Franco - that is the very crux of the problem.

  1. Fredric Jameson. 2007. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso, p. 199. 

  2. See also, and with more emphasis on the weakness of the working classes, Mark Fisher. 2009. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative. Winchester: Zer0 Books, pp. 7-8. 


Trey Taylor (@treytaylor1411)

Trey Taylor is a writer and photographer based in London, UK. He has an MA from the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Kingston University, and is co-founder of Splinter Magazine.