Austrian director Michael Haneke has made a career out of films that are cold, cerebral, almost stereotypically European, and yet incredibly intense at the same time. He tackles disturbing subject matter like murder, suicide, and psychological distress with an extremely bleak outlook. Amour (“love”), which won the Palm d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is no different. It is a harsh and uncompromising portrait of some of the facts of life that people would rather not think about. It’s also perfect on almost all conceivable levels, and is one of the best movies of the year.

Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emanuelle Riva) are a well-off elderly French couple living a pleasant retirement. Their tranquility is shattered when Anne suffers a stroke, and subsequently finds herself partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. Over the course of the following months, her condition steadily deteriorates, as she loses control of one bodily function after another, and finds her memories and lucidity going as well. All the while, Georges struggles to do his best to keep her comfortable. Both know all too well that the end is approaching, and begin to break under the existential pressure.

Haneke represents a pinnacle of artistic filmmaking. Rather than melodrama or large actions, he focuses on small events in a succession that forms a greater picture, all in the service of his themes. This is a slow, deliberate film, one that uses long silences and little gestures to great effect. Paradoxically, the result of this stylistic restraint is an emotional dynamo. Anyone who’s ever watched a loved one go through the end stages of life will recognize how agonizingly accurate this story is. Many have known Georges and Annes, as a grandparent or a parent. Amour is terrifying because it presents the inevitable regression of a human being through stark, unsparing eyes.

Contributing to this effect are Trintignant and Riva, delivering two magnificently restrained, layered, and empathetic performances. Trintignant builds a slow-motion breakdown that’s absolutely heartbreaking. Georges is tortured by watching the woman he loves so dearly slowly disintegrate, while all he can do is stand by helplessly. He is frustration and impotence in the face of nature personified. Opposite him, Riva concocts a thoroughly convincing act of a person who is losing herself piece by piece, and doesn’t know how to react, because the parts of her that could are gone.

Amour is not a good time at the movies. But it is important to acknowledge the worst parts of life, so that one can have a better handle on them. That’s the purpose of art itself, after all – not to distract, but to help people come to grips with the world around them, in all its beauty and terror. And there is plenty of beauty in this film, in addition to the terror. Georges and Anne are a touching example of love that has endured for a long time, the kind of love that is held up as what all love should aspire to be. And this serves to make Anne’s breakdown even more disturbing, but it’s also a reminder that there’s a reason we put up with sickness and death: for love. Even though this movie is stark and unsparing, its title isn’t ironic.