Tagged: speculative fiction

New Order (Mexico-France 2020)

The bride and groom, Marianne and Alan, and between them, Daniel the bride’s brother

New Order, written and directed by Michel Franco, won the Silver Lion at Venice in 2020. It has had a limited release in the UK and is now streaming on MUBI in the UK. I have been aware of Franco for some time but I hadn’t watched any of the films before New Order, which gained some extra promotion via Jason Wood’s new edition of The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema (2021). As Director of Cinema at HOME in Manchester, Wood was able to screen New Order and interview Franco. The MUBI presentation of the film includes a recorded Q&A featuring Franco and his lead player Naian González Norvind.

Outside the gates of the wealthy mansion, the security men and Felipe, the doorman (in the shirtsleeves)

New Order is a ‘large scale’ film featuring expansive crowd scenes, multiple characters and dressing of locations across Mexico City. It doesn’t match the epic sweep of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (Mexico-US 2018), but with co-production money from France it is an impressive production. The New Order of the title refers to an ‘uprising’ in Mexico which leads to a period of chaos and then a military counter-revolution which delivers a dystopian martial law. Reactions to the film have been polarised but it has certainly provoked discussion and reflection. In the Q&A Franco refers to several recent events around the world, not just in Latin America but in Europe with the gilets jaunes, the storming of the White House by Trump supporters and the outcomes of the ‘Arab Spring’ – the situation in Egypt came to mind for me. Franco claims that it was the rise of right-wing populist movements from 2014 that fed into his script. (‘New Order’ is a term associated with fascist groups, especially the Nazis and their contemporary equivalents.) The problem for audiences appears to be that some have actually misread the events on screen and others have, not surprisingly, read them from their own particular ideological perspectives. Perhaps the most striking observation by both Franco and González Norvind in the Q&A was that in Mexico there is no ‘official story’, nobody is accountable and the corruption is such that most of the population never know what has actually happened. I have to say that the way politics and its media coverage is going in the UK/US and much of Europe, not to mention India and China, the Mexican experience is something that is beginning to be shared widely.

The insurrectionists break into the wedding party

New Order begins with a montage of images which act rather like those at the beginning of episodes of TV serials, teasing us with shocking images from later scenes. When the narrative proper begins we see disruption and chaos in a hospital and a clear indication that violent events are happening in the city centre. The action then cuts to a lavish wedding party in an upper-class gated community. Marianne (Naian González Norvind), the daughter of the house, is to be married to Alan, an architect. There are many guests in the large modern mansion. A judge is due to arrive to register the marriage but on the radio/TV there are reports of looting and violence elsewhere in the sprawling city region. The specific inciting moment of the narrative is the arrival at the gates of Rolando, an ex-employee of the family, a servant who worked closely with the family and especially the children Marianne and her older brother Daniel. Ronaldo is seeking to borrow a large sum of money because his wife is dangerously ill and the public hospital is overwhelmed. If we have been concentrating we recognise him from the opening hospital scenes. Unless he can take his wife to a private hospital she will die. He is an almost Biblical figure, the poor man at the gate, arriving at the feast. But is his plea a ruse? Is he connected to the ‘trouble’ in the city as one character seems to suggest? The crucial decision is Marianne’s. She decides to leave her wedding in order to drive the couple to the private hospital. From this decision will come the trajectory of the narrative. Through Marianne, a wealthy young woman who has some form of social conscience, we will see the full impact of the uprising in the city and how it is put down. Some audiences have seen this as a skewed narrative, in which everything is from the perspective of the privileged. Others argue that it reveals the naivety of young wealthy characters like Marianne who live in their bubble and assume that their generosity will in some way assuage the angry demands of the poor. Marianne is the central character but in some ways it is Cristian, one of the servants closely linked to the family who most drives the action forward.

Cristian (centre) and Marta wait in line in the dystopian environment of the city post the uprising

Cristian (Fernando Cuautle) is the nephew of Ronaldo and he and his mother Marta (Mónica Del Carmen) still work for the family. His character is familiar from many contemporary Mexican films, a key figure in narratives that explore social disparity. He is ‘of the poor’ but he works closely with the super rich. He drives their cars, organises the other workers and acts as their agent. His mother or his wife would be a housekeeper, personal maid or nanny for the rich children (like the maid in Roma). Mexican society is akin to the post-colonial European societies. Cristian is a ‘subaltern’ figure, a young man with knowledge of the rich world and a range of skills that allow him to operate the system, but he has no rights or privileges himself. ‘Uprisings’ of the poor place him in a very difficult position. Which side is he on? New Order is linked to all those dramas, melodramas, satires etc. from Mexico and other Latin American industries (especially Brazil) which explore social disparity and the tensions between a ‘European’ elite and a mestizo/indigenous majority population. It is also linked to some of the science fiction/speculative dystopia narratives that have emerged in Latin America. For instance, the idea of Zones set up to control movement following the counter revolution reminded me of La Zona (Mexico 2007).

I’m not sure what to make of New Order. I was impressed by the production and I see that the cinematography (in ‘Scope) was by Yves Cape. He has shot many of the French films that I have enjoyed over the past few years. New Order looks good and the narrative is compelling, but somehow the film didn’t move me. Perhaps I just wanted a clearer political argument? It could be that I’m just as naive as Marianne and that I can’t accept the ending that Michel Franco delivers. Some of the Press quotes suggest that the film is a wake-up call for the super rich. But New Order is worth watching and you might come to a different conclusion. Franco’s earlier film April’s Daughter (Mexico 2017) is also on MUBI.

GFF16 #9: Parabellum (Argentina-Austria 2015)

The recruits learn how to disarm a gunman

The recruits learn how to disarm a gunman

This film didn’t really work for me and I was surprised that it was selected for the Audience Award Competition. There were some good ideas behind the development of the project but they weren’t exploited effectively. Parabellum, as the title implies (transl. ‘prepare for war’), is about ways of tackling conflict and its aftermath. The film posits a world undergoing a never identified crisis manifest in random explosions as comets/bombs? fall from the skies and groups of people take advantage of the panic to start looting and rioting. There is only minimal dialogue as a random group of (presumably middle-class) people from the city is taken to a resort in the forest where we see them instructed in various forms of survival. Eventually they are deemed ready and those who have completed the training set off into the bush to ‘survive’. We don’t know what kind of ‘mission’ they might have been given.

The problem with the long training process is that it is so loosely edited with the inclusion of what seem like redundant or overlong shots that there is no tension or suspense, partly because it isn’t clear whether they are all expected to succeed. Is it a competition? We hear the training instructions but virtually nothing in the interactions between the recruits. When the ‘survivors’ finally get out into the river delta (which isn’t that far from Buenos Aires) things get a little weirder but not much. The trailer for the film includes some interesting images but it doesn’t convey the lacklustre appeal of the narrative. A posting on the film festival’s blog suggests all kinds of things about the film. Director Lukas Valenta Rinner and his collaborators Ana Godoy and Esteban Prado (who co-wrote the script) joined genuine Argentinian survival courses at the time of the 2012 ‘end of the world mania’. The lack of dialogue is a deliberate policy related to the experience of this preparation. The director was raised in Austria before moving to Argentina via Spain to study film and it seems that the film is inspired to some extent by the similarities between the Austrian middle-class and the Argentinian ‘upper middle-class’ (the director’s terms). If I’d read the blog before watching the film I might have been more disposed to support it, but at the end of a long day this film just didn’t grab me like the preceding four.

Trailer from International Film Festival Rotterdam:

The Adjustment Bureau (US 2011)

Anthony Mackie (nearest camera) and John Slattery (in focus)

I’ve been asked to run a day event on ‘dystopias’ – especially as envisaged by the American SF writer Philip K. Dick. A good excuse then to catch The Adjustment Bureau which may become my study text. It’s interesting to note that most of the films based on Dick’s work have drawn on the short stories that he wrote as a ‘pulp’ writer for various magazines in the 1950s (the exceptions are Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (as Blade Runner), A Scanner Darkly and Confessions of a Crap Artist). Radio Free Albumeth is awaiting a distributor, I think. This short story focus may be because some of the early 1950s work is now in the public domain or was acquired cheaply some time ago – Dick only saw a few dollars from many of his stories.

Orbit Science Fiction was published for just five issues in 1953-4

The Adjustment Bureau is ‘freely adapted’ from a story called ‘Adjustment Team’ (written in 1953 and published in Orbit Science Fiction in 1954). Writer-director George Nolfi has expanded the 24 pages offered by Dick to a full length feature script. In the process he has changed the central character from an ‘ordinary Joe’ into a potential Presidential candidate and placed him in a romance and a form of ‘conspiracy thriller’. Dick’s story was much simpler – but more terrifying in its exposure of the ‘unreality of the everyday’. It begins with a talking dog – Dick wrote several ‘fantasy stories’ in the early 1950s – and finishes with an open ending but one that is definitely not part of a romance. Witnessing an ‘adjustment’ is a much more terrifying experience than is depicted in the film. Dick’s protagonist is married and his wife doesn’t trust him. Having said that, Nolfi appears to know his Dickian stories and several aspects of his film work in recognisably ‘Dickian’ ways. Overall, I’m not sure that the film works completely but it is an enjoyable diversion and as Dick adaptations go it sits alongside Imposter and Screamers as one of the better ones. (I would agree that the narrative also resembles those of classic TV shows such as The Outer Limits.)

The simple premise of this dystopia is that a mysterious group of ‘adjusters’ are able to ‘fix’ future events by carefully nudging individuals into particular meetings and situations. At various points of history and geography they can then ‘stop’ time and re-arrange the world to ensure that events follow a set pattern. This is a perfect scenario for speculative fiction since some schmuck somewhere will inevitably fall through the gaps in the planning. In this case it is an adjustment operative who dozes off and fails to stop David Norris (Matt Damon) from boarding his morning bus to the office. As a consequence, Damon not only meets again the young woman who inspired him to make a great speech after he lost a senatorial election but also to arrive at his office in the middle of an ‘adjustment’.

Norris now finds himself trapped in a situation where he will risk forcible ‘re-adjustment’ (or a ‘lobotomy’ as he terms it) if he pursues Elise (Emily Blunt) the woman who has stolen his heart. The Adjustment Team warn him in no uncertain terms about what might happen. They appear to be like ‘angels’ in their powers and motives. At this point astute film fans might think of A Matter of Life and Death (or Stairway to Heaven in the US), the classic Powell and Pressburger film in which David Niven defies Heaven in order to pursue his love for Kim Hunter. Unfortunately, Matt Damon isn’t David Niven – or Roger Livesey. He’s a good actor and clearly a bright guy but for me he doesn’t have any charisma. I’ve read that some think he is the ‘sexiest man in America’, but I can’t see it. Emily Blunt on the other hand is terrific in this film. I’m not quite sure if she’s meant to be a Brit in the script but she doesn’t attempt a strong American accent and her dialogue is peppered with colloquial British English. I don’t think I’ve heard someone dismissed as a ‘tool’ (i.e. a ‘prick’, a ‘dick’, a penis) since the 1970s. (I realise ‘tool’ means something else in modern American slang, but this is Elise/Blunt speaking.) And to hear an actress in a Hollywood movie saying ‘bugger’ is a joy. In fact there seems to be quite a lot of swearing that’s got past the censors for a 12A. The image below is quite suggestive of all kinds of possibilities for Nolfi’s mise en scène and the overall look of the film lensed by John Toll (New York locations in particular) is attractive but I’m not sure it all adds up to much.

Elise (Emily Blunt) and David (Matt Damon) meet 'by chance' at the start of the narrative.

In some ways Damon is perfect as a Dickian ‘ordinary Joe’ – rather than as Presidential material. The possibility that the adjusters are some kind of divine intervention also fits in with the Dickian sense of paranoia and interest in various religious ideas which is there in most of the stories but comes to the fore in the later work. Dressing the adjusters with coats and hats like 1950s/60s FBI agents (see the image at the start of the post) is a stroke of genius and casting Anthony Mackie, John Slattery and Terence Stamp is also a good move. Overall then this movie has things going for it. Of course, a lot of the latter part of the narrative is based on chase sequences. But if that draws in audiences and makes a Dickian adaptation more successful, I guess that is a positive.

The reviews/user comments on the film are interesting, partly because of the divergence towards science fiction or romance rather than both and for the inevitable claims that the film is ‘Inception lite’. The truth is that Inception was inspired by Dick, as are dozens of contemporary films. In fact the Dickian view of the world has now almost become the norm – in itself a Dickian outcome. Dick wrote over a period of thirty years or so. He was amazingly prolific in terms of story ideas and his writing developed during major changes in American society – and dramatic changes in his own personal situation. Adapters are able to take the ideas and attempt to fashion them into workable narratives for contemporary audiences but I’m not sure that mainstream Hollywood is the best place for such adaptations. Presumably Nolfi needed Hollywood to stage his story and this meant that he needed a star like Damon. An adaptation of the original story closer to Dick’s intention would have worked well without stars in a low-budget flick. It’s the terror of discovering that behind the façade of everyday reality there is a team of adjusters that should be the draw, not the excitement of a chase or the possibility of a fulfilled romance. Dick did feature strong emotional relationships in some stories – but rarely are they fulfilled.

Never Let Me Go (UK/US 2010)

Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan as they appear in the 1980s segment of the film.

Never Let Me Go is an interesting film that is, in relative terms, ‘failing’ at the box office. It’s in some ways a brave film. It doesn’t always happen, but the spread in Sight and Sound (March 2011) in which novelist Kazuo Ishiguro and writer-director Mark Romanek make their case for the film, is for me quite convincing. Unfortunately, the audience who do go to see the film probably won’t read the journal and may well be disappointed.

I’m not going to ‘spoil’ the film narrative, but most potential viewers will know that the film is ‘dystopian’ and will therefore expect the characters to be struggling against some form of tyranny or chaos. But many such stories end with a triumph of some sort. Some potential viewers may also expect a strong romance element and a consequent depiction of the agonies of love – the pain and the passion. All of these expectations might be dashed.

Ishiguro’s novel is set in an alternative history of the UK. This makes it an example of speculative fiction. All we are told at the beginning of the film is that medical science has helped to transform lives. In the Sight and Sound piece, it becomes clearer that the basic premise is concerned with an alternative to the success British science had in the 1940s re nuclear physics. ‘What if’ all that research work had gone into medicine and ways had been found to extend life-spans to 100 years or more for most of the population? I’m not sure if this starting point was more explicit in the book, but in the film, apart from a single onscreen statement, we first see 28 year-old ‘Kathy H’ (Carey Mulligan) watching a medical procedure. This is the mid-1990s and we flashback to the late 1970s when Kathy is at a boarding school with her close friend Ruth and new boy Tommy, who is having problems settling in. Later, we meet the three characters when they have left school but have been transferred to a hostel in a remote rural setting – this is the mid 1980s. The older Ruth (Keira Knightley) has by then developed a relationship with Tommy (Andrew Garfield), but Kathy remains celibate working to maintain her friendship with Ruth and repressing her desire for Tommy – she was the first to befriend him. So far, so ménage à trois, but we know something terrible is going to happen (we actually learn what this is, but not all of its consequences, during the boarding school phase).

Audience expectations

Part of my fascination with this film is to disentangle the original proposal and its treatment in an industrial/commercial context and the ways in which it has been approached by several distinct potential audiences. The first adaptation of a Kazuo Ishiguro novel was The Remains of the Day in 1993 which proved to be a major arthouse success starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. There would certainly be an audience of Ishiguro readers who would consider another adaptation favourably, although speculative fiction offered by ‘literary’ authors is sometimes a more difficult sell. This audience may also be concerned by the ways in which film adaptations can emphasise action over reflection, changing the tone of the novel. With this audience in mind, Never Let Me Go could perhaps have been a small-scale ‘specialised film’. When the film production got underway, this might still have been possible. Carey Mulligan was cast on the basis of early sightings of her performance in An Education – before she became a celebrity figure. She persuaded her friend Keira Knightley (and the producers) to appear as Ruth. Knightley is a major star/celebrity figure, but she has appeared in smaller films without noticeably disrupting those films via her star image. However, I think that in this case the casting of Andrew Garfield probably helped tip the scale. As with Mulligan, when production began Garfield was a highly regarded young actor, but not a big ‘name’ Hollywood star. Now he is a lead in a hit film, The Social Network, and is currently ‘in production’ as the new Spider-Man . When Never Let Me Go opened in the UK, there must have been a potential young audience, longing for a sight of these stars in a mainstream romance film. At the same time, the specialised cinema audience which enjoys intelligent and intriguing speculative fiction/science fiction may have been put off by the prospect of a Hollywood-style romance. So, three different audiences all with possible problems. My first inkling of the problem was during the London Film Festival when I couldn’t help overhearing the woman behind me telling her friend that she’d seen Never Let Me Go as the Opening Film of the festival. She had found it so harrowing that she had immediately bought the biggest box of chocolates she could find and taken it to a screening of the Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz film Knight and Day as an antidote.

How can I explain what Never Let Me Go is about without a spoiler? Let’s just say that the three young people face a terrible prognosis of what is in store for them. This is hinted at quite cleverly in the opening sequence of their early schooldays. They don’t have full names – just a first name and an initial, rather like the character in Kafka’s tales of paranoia. There is something decidedly spooky about the school – not least Charlotte Rampling as the headteacher. In a Hollywood movie our heroes would intuit the danger, find out the true story and then fight to be free. In real life, as Kazuo Ishiguro argues, most people faced with a terrible prognosis don’t fight it in a Quixotic way (though a handful do – and they often become the subject of biopics or melodramas). Most of us would focus on mundane daily routines and on our relationships with those nearest to us. Under pressure and frightened of losing control we look for something we can hold on to. In this film, the trio have only each other and the complicated feelings they have for each other. They each love the other two in different ways. But what is love? What do you want for the person you love and how do you express that love?That’s what this film is about and how it ends, how that love is expressed, is the key to the film’s resolution. The film’s title is echoed in a ‘fictional’ song that the child Tommy gives to Kathy on a music cassette and in a way ‘letting go’ becomes the crucial question for the characters – whatever it may mean. I confess that while I enjoyed the film as I watched it, I found the Sight and Sound material very helpful and I’ve thought about it at some length since.

Technically, the film is very well made with cinematography, editing and sound beautifully representing the tone of the narrative and the fictional world – the ‘not quite there’ feeling of the time periods and the strange but familiar English landscapes (at least one location in Scotland though). The casting and acting performances are excellent all round and the young actors morph into the well-known faces in quite an uncanny way. I did feel sorry for Keira Knightley in that her role is as the least sympathetic of the main characters and the least likely to gain favourable notices. On the other hand, Carey Mulligan couldn’t ask for a better role and she is extremely good. She’s now at the point where she will be offered the roles that could make her a major star. I hope she chooses wisely.

Afterthought: I meant to mention that the script adaptation is by Alex Garland, known recently for his two science fiction scripts for Danny Boyle (28 Days Later and Sunshine). This may have contributed to audience expectations. By all accounts, his script keeps close to the novel’s narrative.