Already well-established for his music videos and TV ads, Austrian writer-director Markus Blunder applies the cinematic boldness and freedom afforded by his short-form work to his feature debut, Autumn Blood, an enigmatic, visually stunning, but uneven parable about the rape and attempted murder of a young girl in a tiny Alpine community.

Blunder's film is stretched in the space between contradictions, both in story and form. Its setting - the Alps, with their expanses of forests, waterfalls, caves, and snow-covered peaks - is as breathtaking in its beauty as the film's central event is brutal. Its people slavishly go to church each week, yet seem entirely oblivious to their moral duty to protect the weak.

Formally, Autumn Blood is exquisitely expressive, yet contains no dialogue, save for the odd exclamation or fragmentary phrase. The characters speak, as it were, through extended close-ups of their faces and eyes.

English actor Sophie Lowe, 24, who plays Alice in Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, gives a remarkable performance as a teenage girl who has recently become aware of her sexuality. When both her parents die, she is left alone to run the family's small farm and care for her much younger brother.

Her life and innocence are shattered when a handsome, charming young man (Samuel Vauramo), at whom she's been making eyes, one day tries to kiss her while she's bathing in a lake.

When she resists, he brutally rapes and beats her.

The shock we feel is increased exponentially because of the man's apparently beatific face, which seems at points wracked with guilt. He's not a monstrous stock character out of horror films. Guilty or not, some time later he brings two friends to the girl's house and they rape her en masse.

When the mayor (Peter Stormare), who has some dark secrets of his own, becomes suspicious, the three men go after the girl with guns. The chase that ensues takes us deep into the woods, into caves, into darkness.

Blunder's risks don't always pay off. His film threatens to devolve into an exploitation flick even though it's infused with such earnest artistic and moral ambition.

Some viewers will dismiss Autumn Blood as a pretentious Euro-art iteration of Straw Dogs.

For those willing to be open to its experimentation and more charitable about its many faults, the film can provide a powerful experience and serve as an fascinating testament to the tenuous nature of the social contract.

Autumn Blood **1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Markus Blunder. With Sophie Lowe, Peter Stormare, Samuel Vauramo, Gustaf Skarsgård, Tim Morten Uhlenbrock. Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.

Parent's guide: R (violence, nudity, rape scenes).

Playing at: AMC Neshaminy 24.

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