"Wolf" suffers from apocalyptic vagueness

"Time of the Wolf" ("Le Temps du loup") is a thinking person's post-apocalyptic film. There's not much action, and no anarchic bloodlust to wallow in, and no revenge fantasies to cleanse us of our anarchic bloodlust.

If anything, the film's slow pace helps the audience internalize the onscreen dilemmas. If society breaks down, who or what do you remain loyal to? Your family? What if they're weak? What if you're weak? At what point do you cut off compassion in order to save yourself?

The film literally opens with a bang. Upon entering their cabin in the woods, a family encounters a man with a rifle. The father attempts to bargain ("We can share") and threaten ("This is private property"). Then the gun goes off. Cut to his wife, Anna (Isabelle Huppert), with her husband's blood splattered on her face. She registers nothing before suddenly throwing up.

When she attempts to report the murder, the local authority offers sympathetic comments without sympathy; when she repeats herself, he gets annoyed. "Don't you know what's going on?" he asks.

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Showtimes and trailer

"Time of the Wolf" ("Le Temps du loup"), with Isabelle Huppert, Anais Demoustier, Hakim Taleb, Lucas Biscombe. Written and directed by Michael Haneke. In French with English subtitles. 114 minutes. Rated R for some violence, language and sexuality/nudity. Grand Illusion Theatre.

We never really find out, but bit by bit we realize there has been a complete social breakdown. Food and water are scarce, and Anna and her two children wander the French countryside, past bonfires of burning, diseased cattle, seeking shelter in barns, and guzzling and chomping their remaining prefabricated food.

The younger child, Ben (Lucas Biscombe), gets frequent nosebleeds, while his sister, Eva (Anais Demoustier), seems more aware than the mother of their predicament. For a time, a young runaway (Hakim Taleb) tags along and attempts to school them from a distance. He strips a dead body for its clothes; he leads them to a train station where, it is rumored, a train might stop someday. But to what end? That question is never answered. Why return to the city they fled before the film started?

There are others at this train station, and a vague authority figure, Koslowski (Olivier Gourmet), who's big and owns a gun, and who accepts sexual favors from women who have nothing else to trade. More people arrive and stay. A community of sorts emerges. Roles and rules are being created, and the focus of the film becomes more community-oriented rather than family-oriented. If it weren't so deadpan it might be uplifting.

Hollywood films suffer when they leave nothing to the imagination, but "Wolf," from writer-director Michael Haneke ("The Piano Teacher"), is the exact opposite: It leaves too much to the imagination. It's the cinematic equivalent of Isabelle Huppert, the great stoneface of the French cinema, whose act is getting old. The kids — all making their screen debuts — you care about. Huppert's Anna? Who is she? What did she do in the city? What does she want now? She gives us too little, as does the film. The questions the film raises are more interesting than the film itself.