Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or-winning study of an elderly couple preparing for death is as pitiless and unflinching as we've come to expect from the man behind Funny Games, The Piano Teacher et al, but it's also a good deal tenderer. The horror expressed here is more universal than arguably anything Haneke has meticulously tackled before – the reality, as experienced through Jean-Loius Trintignant's stoical Georges, of a loved one slipping subtly away before your eyes.
Following a devastating flash-forward that bluntly lays out the film's endpoint before it's begun, we're introduced to Georges and his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) attending a concert. They're both retired piano teachers, while The Piano Teacher herself Isabelle Huppert plays their daughter, but the comparisons to Haneke's punishing 2001 drama end there.
Her fear of doctors and resistance to being hospitalised forces Georges to shoulder the near-crushing burden of care, as she becomes wheelchair-bound and increasingly disabled, reduced first to the level of a child and ultimately a helpless animal.
Haneke is ruthlessly restrictive with his camera, containing whole scenes within a single static frame, moving outside the confines of Georges and Anne's beautiful but increasingly oppressive home for only one early scene. Trintignant's is an impossibly moving performance, offering glimpses of his character's gradual unraveling without ever compromising his graceful resilience, while Riva imbues the articulate Anne's decline into incoherency with matter-of-fact pathos.
Haneke has said that he took his inspiration from a close relative who suffered a similar attack, and Amour feels very strongly like a personal story, its terror rooted firmly in the mundane. It's a gentler and less viscerally disturbing two hours than Haneke's average, but his version of tenderness is still more brutal than most filmmakers' versions of brutality.
Photo gallery - BFI London Film Festival 2012 in pictures: