VENICE – 2020 has been a hell of a year. There’s no arguing with that. It’s been rolling since 2016 but the avalanche of bad news just keeps coming and so it’s fitting that the deeply depressing cinema of Michel Franco has reached its apotheosis/nadir at this moment. Nuevo Orden (New Order) begins with an almost impressionistic collection of images, isolated from us. Green paint is one constant and a foreboding sense of destruction. It is weirdly beautiful but at the same time disturbing. Something’s going on in here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.
A wedding is being celebrated, the usual happy ending for a comedy. The 25 year old daughter of a wealthy family, Marriane (Naian Gonzalez Norvind) is marrying her boyfriend, amidst the happy guests of the wealthy and powerful in the kind of palatial glass and wood chic mansion that seems to be begging to be home invaded by Michael Haneke characters. Sure enough a popular revolt is underway and green paint is thrown as violence erupts. It is a savage and startling scene but the brutality of the protesters is rapidly overtaken by a crackdown of the army and a series of kidnappings. “Welcome to hell, assholes!” one character shouts and he could just as well have been addressing the audience. This is extreme and bleak but its vision of fascist taking advantage of populist anger feels all too real.
Society has also broken down in Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland. In this case a mine has closed and the town of Empire has become a ghost. Frances McDormand plays Fern, the town’s last resident who packs her stuff and takes to the road. At first she is learning the ropes, working a season at Amazon and then heading south for the winter. Here she finds a community of like minded folk who are living off the grid through a mix of necessity and ideology. This community offers advice and help, solidarity and friendship, and soon Fern finds herself as part of loose kinship. Zhao’s documentary style perfectly complements McDormand’s naturalistic performance.
Whereas Michel Franco sees the good in people crushed by a heartless society in free fall, Zhao’s vision is full of people desperately trying to help each other. Avoiding melodrama and sentimentality, her story like her main character eschews the easy road for more difficult terrain, but Lord Almighty, the views are tremendous.
Either of these films would deserve a top prize but I’m hoping for Chloe Zhao.
- Chloe Zhao before Nomaland: The Rider