Two-time Palme d'Or winner Michael Haneke is not one for optimism, as this 'gruelling, unsentimental and undeniably excellent' film shows

Acclaimed Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has gained himself a reputation as a rather humourless director. To be fair, with films such as Funny Games and Benny’s Video on his CV, you can see where his critics are coming from.

This narrow perception of his work has been challenged, however, with the release of his most recent films, which are conspicuous for the fact that they bring out an element hitherto not in great supply in Haneke's stories: heart.

While his previous feature The White Ribbon, was, yes, a black and white, scoreless exploration of the birth of Fascism during the inter-war years in Germany, it was remarkable mostly for the unexpectedly tender scenes depicting the courtship between a schoolteacher and a young girl.

Despite exploring the impact that violence has on human relationships and wider society, gone was the hectoring tone that marred (at least for some) Haneke's earlier oeuvre. Perhaps the success of this more oblique and less didactic storytelling was a lesson in this respect.

Whatever it was, The White Ribbon went down well with critics, coming away from Cannes with a Palme d’Or. Amazingly for Haneke, this was a feat also achieved by his new film Amour (Love), putting him in a select club of two-time Palme d’Or winners alongside the likes of Francis Ford Coppolla the Dardenne Brothers.

Amour pares things down even further, with the great majority of the film taking place inside the flat of elderly couple Georges and Anne, and the cast greatly reduced in comparison to Haneke's other films, making Amour, in the main, a two hander.

The plot is far from flabby – Anne’s health begins to deteriorate after a stroke and Georges must look after her. And that’s it, essentially. The drama – and there is a lot of it – comes in how the two cope with Anne's inexorable decline and how it’s dealt with by the ex-students, family members and neighbours who come by, not to mention the nurses.

If anything, Amour begins to resemble a horror film, though tensions are heightened much more effectively than in the standard stalk and slash flick. That realism is incredibly emotive. After all, it's highly unlikely that anyone reading this review will ever become the victim of a serial killer, or be possessed by the devil. All of us, though, will get old and so will those we love, and death is something that we all must deal with sooner or later.

While horror films use metaphor and artifice to explore those fears, Haneke strips his story down to its bare bones for maximum effect. With Amour he is saying, 'This is what’s going to happen to the vast majority of us, and this, like it or not, is what it’s going to look like'.

In his determination to 'tell it like it is', Haneke is ably aided with calm, restrained performances from his two leads, both of whom have long, illustrious careers in European cinema, having worked with some of the best directors from France, America and elsewhere.

Jean-Louis Trintignant, as Georges, is perhaps best known for his lead role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, which is also possibly the best film either man has made. Emmanuelle Riva, as Anne, has herself worked with Georges Franju, Jean-Pierre Melville and Krzysztof Kieslowski, and is best known for Alain Resnais’ massively influential Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Of course Haneke draws on this familiarity between star and audience member. Because we are so aware of these two people – of their facial expressions, their perceived character, their body language – we share all the more keenly in their joint tragedy. Unknown actors may not have ellicited the same reaction.

One of the most effective scenes in the film is when Anne flips through a photo album at two live's worth of images, and like the opening scene in Up, which recalls a similarly elderly couple's journey through life, it leaves one devastated.

Rather than ruing the position she finds herself in, however, Anne remarks upon how good life is, and how long. Despite the heart that Anne brings heart to proceedings, nevertheless old habits die hard for Haneke. This is about as optimistic is gets in this grueling, unsentimental and undeniably excellent film.

Amour screens in Queen's Film Theatre until December 13.