Looking at the career of Michael Haneke, Amour initially seems like a bit of a left turn for the man who wrote and directed two separate versions of Funny Games, as well as The White Ribbon and Cache. His films have a strong undertow of both physical and emotional torture, as well as a general and often suffocating sense of unrest. So how does a film about an old couple desperately in love with each other fit into Haneke’s grand cinematic scheme? Is this his The Straight Story, or is there something more going on here?

Amour has unassuming beginnings. After a brief framing sequence (this is another in a long line of films that begins with the ending and backtracks), we are essentially presented to ourselves, as a long static shot of a theater slowly filling with people taking their seats and staring right back out at us. We eventually learn that the audience is not at a film, so the device is not as self-reflexive as it could be, but it remains a stark shot, lingering to the point of being nearly uncomfortable until the tension is broken by applause as the show begins. Haneke never shows us the stage, choosing instead to remain trained to the audience for the entire scene, a nameless ocean of unfamiliar faces surrounding our principal actors. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) , who are not even front and center in the shot, representing just two more random faces.

From this point, the film essentially never leaves Anne and Georges’ home, as a bizarre and unexpected attack of catatonia brought on by a stroke begins a long, slow and painful spiral for Anne into paralysis, dementia and enfeeblement before inevitable death. The meat of the film consists of Georges’ attempts to make his wife’s last days as comfortable as possible. Their marriage and relationship is tested at every turn as Anne’s reluctance to be confined to hospital care forces Georges into the role of full time caretaker, despite his own advanced age.

Amour is a difficult sit. Personally, I found the film to be one of the toughest great films to watch since Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky’s famously beautiful and crushing treatise on drug addiction and delusion. The reason for this lies in the film’s frank and unflinching depiction of death and dementia, which happen to be my two greatest fears. It is possible, then, that someone who does not have the same background as myself might not be affected as much, but this film hit me hard. It is especially disquieting considering Anne and Georges’ background as music (specifically piano) teachers, which is a specifically artistic and motor skill based profession. You can see it in the face of Alexandre, their former pupil, when Anne is wheeled in to the sitting room, seeing her unable to walk under her own power, her right hand crippled and unmoving at her chest. It’s just pure and unadulterated heartbreak to see someone once so vibrant robbed of everything that made her who she was as a younger person (or even minutes before the first stroke). It is almost cruel the way Riva’s character is treated here, the way at such an advanced age everything can deteriorate so quickly. To see what Anne becomes by even the middle of film is deeply troubling. Anne’s character allows Riva to dig into an incredibly meaty role; it is an intensely physical performance, but never devolves into the sort of LOOK HOW SICK I AM showiness that could easily push the role in the wrong direction toward mockery. Her descent is measured and subtle, and she is entirely deserving of all the accolades and major awards she has received.

Trintignant has not received the same level of acclaim as Riva for his role in the film, and frankly that is a bit of a crime. One could argue that the Best Actor races are more difficult this year, with Daniel Day Lewis, Joaquin Phoenix and Denzel Washington putting in titanic performances, but I cannot fathom the concept of Bradley Cooper and (especially) Hugh Jackman receiving nominations over Trintignant. Georges’ character does not have the same opportunities for ACTING the way Riva does (and again, she thankfully does not ham it up), but he is saddled with the emotional core of their relationship. With Anne confined to a bed for nearly half of the running time of the film (and unable to speak coherently for the final third), Georges must convey the weight of his burden for both of them. Trintignant’s character is not a simple selfless devotee, and over the course of Anne’s decline he must cope with his own desires to preserve her life at the cost of her comfort in the face of brutal suffering. He is not a saint, and takes part in one of the most shocking single moments in any film I have seen in 2012. His climactic act is one of violence, desperation and mercy, and its implications hang over the film’s final silent moments. We feel the weight of his decisions at all times, and he is not the perfect husband in this film.

It is in these moments that we realize Amour is indeed a Haneke film through and through, not only due to the torture that Anne must endure, but also because Georges takes the burden of her care on himself, and obstinately refuses to let her go to end both of their suffering. His love for her is a tragic flaw, and by the time he finally gives in, he is a drawn out husk of his former self. Anne’s illness may have only physically afflicted her, but Georges’ love for her was such that he saw no other option than to make her pain his pain as well, all in the name of love. The depth of suffering may not be on the same acute level as some of Haneke’s other films, but the addition of this intimate love story at its core makes this a different sort of film for him, even if the themes are similar to his other work. The torture these characters endure does not have the random element of Funny Games (for example), and thus does not approach the sadistic, but the audience also has a stronger affinity for the victims in this film compared to the others, which makes their suffering noticeably more difficult to watch. Haneke has given us a treatise on not just the anguish of watching your loved one die, but also the maelstrom of emotions that come with it. Selfishness, obstinance, denial, despair, all of it is in play here, and all of it is orchestrated beautifully by Haneke. The never changing setting of their home becomes a claustrophobic tomb. Haneke does not even provide us with a score to ease the tension, which was certainly needed when all Anne can do is moan the word “hurt” over and over again while Georges can do nothing to comfort her. Shots linger well past the time any other director would cut away, all to serve the emotional center of the film. Haneke has given us an uncompromising and beautiful film. It is one of the very best films of 2012, is entirely deserving of its praise, and is an experience I will not soon forget.