The Austrian director Michael Haneke is known for his creep-outs (Caché), freak-outs (Funny Games), and the air of dislocating disturbance that he imparts to almost everything his camera peers at. Amour, his brilliant and haunting new movie, has a moment early on that is very Haneke-ian. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), a French couple in their still-vital early 80s, are at their cozily cramped little breakfast table, and just as Georges is about to crack open his soft-boiled egg, he sees that Anne is sitting there with a vacant stare, registering nothing. A minute or so later, she returns to normal, but Haneke holds that frozen trance for just long enough that even as we wonder what's happening (is it an early Alzheimer's symptom?), her stillness carries a hint of the otherworldly. It's Haneke's version of a David Lynch moment the presence of something we can't see.
As it turns out, Amour is no spaced-out horror film. It's an intensely clear-eyed and tender, at times almost voyeuristically intimate, look at what happens to an aging, agreeably married couple when one of them begins to slip away. After a trip to the doctor, Anne gets an operation for a blocked carotid artery, but the procedure doesn't work, and her condition grows steadily worse. She suffers a stroke and becomes paralyzed on her right side, her hand curled into a gnarled fist. Yet even after that episode from the opening of the film, her mind is mostly still there. And what she wants, what she needs, is to die.
Georges does everything in his power to sustain their connection as long as he can. For most of the film, the two are inside their vast, slightly decrepit old Paris apartment, with occasional visits from nurses, a former student, and their financier daughter (Isabelle Huppert). Haneke films his actors in meticulously framed master shots, creating a kind of hushed neorealist medical-horror suspense. He infuses everyday dread with a touch of the uncanny.
Is Amour hard to watch? At times it is, yet it's also transfixing and extraordinarily touching the most hauntingly honest movie about old age ever made. The great Trintignant now looks like the aging Picasso with more hair, and if his manner is sophisticated, his eyes gleam with hints of a knowledge too despairing to share. And Riva, celebrated 53 years ago in Hiroshima Mon Amour and still very beautiful, gives a performance that is fearless, physically audacious, and heartbreaking. When Georges tries to give Anne water, and Riva lets it roll angrily down her chin, the look on her face makes that act a violent denial of life and also, in its fury, a pure expression of it. In Amour, these two actors show us what love is, what it really looks like, and what it may, at its most secret moments, demand. A