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MOVIE REVIEW

Agonizing artistry amid societal strife

The best way to approach the devastating "Time of the Wolf" is to walk into it cold. If you're a fan of director Michael Haneke's previous nasty little mind games -- last year's "The Piano Teacher," 2000's "Code Unknown" -- and can handle the relentless artistic pulling of the rug out from under your belief that the world, your world, is a comfortable place, stop reading this review and go see the movie.

Now that they're gone, here's what the rest of you are missing.

"Time of the Wolf" takes place in the French countryside during a period of undefined apocalypse. The time is tomorrow -- although if this were Eastern Europe it might be yesterday -- and the main characters are a comfortable bourgeois family whose members have no idea what hit them. Father (Daniel Duval) isn't on the scene for long; mother Anne (Isabelle Huppert), teen daughter Eva (Anais Demoustier), and young son Ben (Lucas Biscombe) are forced from their weekend cottage and crisscross the fields, searching for food and shelter.

Local villagers turn them away; livestock burn in funeral pyres; dog packs run wild; the water is contaminated. "We're from the city," the elegant, shellshocked Anne keeps telling people, as if that alone explains her distress. And perhaps it does.

Slowly -- very slowly -- it becomes apparent that civilization itself has come unglued. "Wolf" begins with a scene of yuppie normality only to wipe the slate horribly clean; the film then rebuilds society piece by piece. The family travels alone by night for a long stretch, then encounters a runaway boy (Hakim Taleb) whose knack for scavenging is matched by his amorality. They fall in with a small band of survivors at a deserted train station, a group lorded over by a strongman (Olivier Gourmet) who sets the rules and exacts payment, sexual and otherwise.

Soon there are traveling bands of water merchants, guarded by armed horsemen. A barter system arises in which plastic lighters and bicycles carry more value than jewelry. Other groups arrive; the station becomes a ragtag city of refugees from a world that no longer exists. Mob rule struggles with handmade tribunals. A desperate mythology arises, something about 36 Just Beings that may yet set the world right.

We come to know many of the dispossessed, but the daughter, Eva, evolves into the central figure of "Wolf," and her attraction and repulsion to the adolescent runaway becomes a mirror of the choice society's remnants must make. This is Demoustier's first film, and her gentle, empathetic rawness is exactly what's needed.

Haneke and his cinematographer Jurgen Jurges present their wasteland with a surgical dispassion that borders on cruelty (warning: one scene involving the butchering of a horse crosses the line). Much of "Wolf" takes place at night, with one terrifying early sequence in total darkness. There's no musical score, and when we hear a snippet of Beethoven late in the film -- the Violin Sonata No. 5 -- it's shared on a Walkman running low on juice. And it feels like a lifeline.

Yet it's worth noting that the piece is known as the "Spring" sonata, and despite the fact that "Time of the Wolf" is one of the most depressing, if not agonizing, movies I've ever seen, it ends on a faint, maybe foolhardy glimmer of hope. This sort of humanity-down-the-drain movie isn't without precedent -- Godard had his "Weekend" (1967), and Bergman's 1968 "Shame" is one of his best. But Haneke has become known as a dour modern master of cinematic pain, and in this movie he scrubs civilization down to the root level. It's almost a shock to see him cup his hands and treasure the first shoots of renewal.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

Time of the Wolf
Written and directed by: Michael Haneke
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Anais Demoustier,Hakim Taleb
At: Brattle Theatre, through July 8
Running time: 110 minutes
Unrated (graphic violence, disturbing subject matter, sexuality)
In French, with subtitles
***1/2

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