Austrian director Michael Haneke on Sunday secured his spot as the most important film-maker working in Europe today with his second Palme d'Or in three years at Cannes.
His wrenching "Love" about the devotion binding an elderly man to his dying wife marked a break with his often brutal fare, as Haneke had been best known as a master at exposing the chilling secrets of the human soul.
The Austrian took the Palme d'Or in 2009 for a very different work, "The White Ribbon", a black-and-white study of malice in a German village on the eve of World War I, which some saw as a parable on the roots of Nazi savagery.
The director built his international reputation with the psychological thriller "Funny Games U.S." with Tim Roth, which was driven by his recurrent theme of middle-class lives disrupted by malevolent forces.
The French-language "Love" marked a journey into tender, intimate territory and was instantly embraced as a masterpiece by prominent critics.
"Anyone familiar with Haneke knows the milk of human kindness does not exactly flow through his body of work," Variety reviewer Justin Chang wrote from Cannes this week.
But the director handled his universal subject, how we cope with the pain of our loved ones, with the exacting touch of his darker work, to devastating emotional effect, Chang argued.
Haneke cast French icon Jean-Louis Trintignant, 81, and Emmanuelle Riva, 85, in the story of Georges and Anne, retired music teachers whose adoring relationship is cruelly tested when she suffers a stroke.
Set in the hushed rooms of the couple's parquet-floored Parisian flat, the film charts Anne's physical and mental decline, and the increasingly unbearable strain it puts on Georges, who pledges to care for her at home until the end.
"Once you reach a certain age, you necessarily have to face the suffering of the people you love," Haneke said in Cannes when asked about his choice of subject. "It's part of nature."
Trintignant, the star of the 1966 classic "A Man And A Woman", climbed the stage with Haneke Sunday and declared him "the best living director on the scene today".
The Austrian film-maker said his reputation to date only reflected one side of his artistic vision.
"I have to defend myself against this idea that I am the specialist of violence," he said. "But whether it's violence, or love, or other feelings, I try to portray it in the most efficient way possible."
The director also made clear this is not a film about the social challenges of caring for an ageing population.
"I don't write films in order to make a point," he said. "I had no desire to make a TV-style film about society and its problems."
The son of an actor couple, Haneke was born in the southern German city of Munich. He had an early career as a film critic and theatre and television director, and recently turned his hand to directing operas.
"The Seventh Continent" in 1989 was his first feature, displaying the violence and formal boldness that would mark his later work, which alternates between three languages, French, German and English.
His 1997 German-language "Funny Games" -- an icy tale of two psychopaths taking a family hostage and torturing them, which he remade with a Hollywood cast in 2008 -- brought him to international attention.
Haneke's major breakthrough came in 2001 with "The Piano Teacher," which won the runner-up Grand Prix prize in Cannes as well as best actress for Isabelle Huppert's turn as an uptight music professor who is only able to "feel" through sadomasochism and sexual self-mutilation.
Both "Funny Games" and "Hidden" -- a 2005 film set in Paris -- display some of the themes recurrent in his work, such as the arrival of a disruptive force into a middle-class family's comfortable existence.
Source: AFP Global Edition