Michael Haneke's worldview, at least as it manifests itself in his films, has always been marked by an emotional austerity, by the possibility of unexpected violence, by paranoia and fear.
From the creeping enigmas of Caché to the almost pornographic violation of Funny Games to the oppressive morality of The White Ribbon, Haneke has served up perfectly crafted studies of cruelty and existential dread.
Which makes the tenderness he brings to Amour, the Austrian filmmaker's remarkable and heartbreaking portrait of an elderly Parisian couple, all the more shocking. Set almost entirely within the confines of a comfortable apartment, lined with books and filled with music, the film finds Georges and Anne, played by French New Wave icons Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, going about their modest routines. Retired musicians and teachers with decades of marriage and a daughter (Haneke regular Isabelle Huppert) off in her own orbit, the pair share breakfast at a small table in the kitchen, and share memories, and bicker, and tease, and reflect.
There is no doubt these two people are still deeply in love, and every subtle gesture, quick glance, seemingly mundane exchange says as much. Trintignant and Riva make all this look absolutely effortless - we are watching two actors with years of experience, who have absorbed all the craft and technique they could possibly need, and their characters come to us here, before the unblinking eye of Haneke's (and ace cinematographer Darius Khondji's) camera, fully realized, absolutely real.
And then Anne has a stroke, and he must tend to her, feed her, help her walk and go to the bathroom. After a lifetime of independence and mutual responsibility, Georges is now the caregiver. The burden - physical, psychological - is on him.
Amour, full of a quiet precision and long, static shots, is not without its suspense, its mysteries. The film begins literally with a bang, as police knock down the door to the apartment. The chronology is elliptical, there is a terrifying dream, and there is a pigeon, an errant visitor from a window ledge, whose appearance in the rooms of the octogenarians' flat seems comically odd at first, and then - this being Haneke - deeply troubling and strange.
Nominated in the forthcoming Academy Awards for both best picture and best foreign language film (and for best actress, for Riva), a prizewinner at Cannes, Amour arrives with plaudits and praise. But this is not hype, it is all deserved. This is a masterpiece.