I must first confess to a personal bias: ever since the release of Funny Games U.S., the complete body of work, past and future, of director/provocateur Michael Haneke has come to me with a definite "yeah? prove it" disadvantage. What, exactly, I want him to prove, other than the fact that he can stop being Michael Haneke, I do not quite know. Thus I admit upfront that the widely-adored Amour got no benefit of the doubt from me, Palme d'Or or not, and while the film is good in most ways and very good in some (mostly those ways called "Emmanuelle Riva" and "Jean-Louis Trintignant"), it did, in fact, fail to prove it.

It doesn't help that the movie opens on its most unpleasantly sarcastic moment, where Haneke's zeal for punishing the audience for no apparent reason is at its rawest: all of the credits, except for two, appear in silence, white text on black, and then the film opens on a scene of rescue workers breaking into an apartment; we can tell from their reactions that something in that apartment smells foul, but none of this is played as tense or thrilling, just as a group of people walking deliberately through the space. They finally enter a bedroom, and the camera drops down to stare at Emmanuelle Riva's dead face for just a second before cutting back to black and - "AMOUR. Un filme de MICHAEL HANEKE." Different people will interpret this different ways, but for me it was nothing but a snotty joke, a "haha, there is no love, just irony in the face of death" gesture from the last filmmaker alive whom I wanted to hear tell me that.

Thankfully, there's absolutely nothing in the rest of the film, which takes place entirely prior to that scene (up to a final shot that really doesn't even seem to square with the opening, anyway), that's nearly so pointedly cruel. Hard and unpleasant, but there's never the feeling that Haneke hates us for watching his movie.

Amour is about an old married couple, Georges (Trintignant) and Anne (Riva), the latest in a long line of bourgeois couples bearing those names in Haneke's filmography, two retired music teachers with a musician daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), whom they very rarely see, and whose last student, pianist Alexandre Tharaud (playing a fictional version of himself) is currently receiving accolades for his Schubert performances - if my memory does not fail me, the only time we leave Georges and Anne's apartment is to hear Tharaud's playing of pieces that are beautiful, subtle and somewhat grim, and thus the perfect fit for this movie.

A merciless, spare exercise through and through, Amour gives us just a very small amount of time to get to know our central couple before springing tragedy on them - and and it is not, I trust, any kind of surprise that tragedy ends up being sprung. We've already seen Anne's dessicated, reeking corpse, after all. And thus it's with a sense of inevitability more than fear that we arrive at a breakfast, one that is played and staged to suggest that there have been thousands of breakfasts just like it, when Anne just kind of... stops. Georges is on his way to fetch a doctor when she revives, having no memory at all of the incident. At this point, many films would put us through the diagnostic process, watching with melodramatic fear and hope, but Haneke doesn't bother: one single cut sweeps us forward days or weeks, to find George and Eva discussing the prognosis, which is not good: Anne had a stroke, was operated on, and belongs to the 5% of people for whom routine surgery made it worse. Georges puts on a brave face and maybe even believes in it, but we are given absolutely no reason to doubt where this is going, and over time, Georges joins us. And from there on out, Amour is not about defying illness and mortality, but about trying to face them in the most dignified way, the love shared between the two main characters not a defense against the inevitability of death, but simply a crutch that makes death possible to face without being plunged into screaming nihilism.

There's nothing uplifting or cathartic about any of this, and you'd have to be a bit of a fool to expect it: not only does Haneke refuse to indulge in the narrative stations that would make anything about this comforting, he and crackerjack cinematographer Darius Khondji (who hasn't been getting very much good work these past few years) frame all of the action in deliberately austere static shots, so icy and removed that it's almost tempting to call it a parody of European art cinema style, which purposefully locks the characters on one side of a formal prison, the audience on another: we are, in effect, watching them in an aquarium. To perfectly frank, I haven't decided how I feel about this, but I don't think I'm terribly enthusiastic: eschewing sentimentality is fine, and surely the sight of a Haneke weeper would be nothing less than grotesque, but there's always a sense that we're being shown misery for misery's sake. Doubtlessly, Haneke would take the overt, mainstream, commercial tragedy of the similarly-themed Away from Her to be crass manipulation - and while Amour, like any movie, is manipulative, it's certainly not that kind of manipulative - but that film gains its power from grounding its characters' pain in something humanistic; they feel for our benefit, while Georges and Anne suffer for our benefit, and not in a way that tells us much about the nature of living, only the nature of suffering.

What saves the film from unpleasant, "if I am unhappy, this must be Art" sobriety are the central performances, acting as the counterbalance to Haneke's unforgiving formal language. Not that either actor is entirely able to shake off the film's severity; Riva in particular is given so little to do in the last three-quarters other than suffer and die, while becoming increasingly incapable of communicating anything but her pain. Trintignant at least gets a few big moments, two speeches where he reveals to his wife of decades that there are things about him she does not know, and it's in scenes like these that Amour lives up to its name and becomes something tender and true: little details that show how familiarity and comfort have not deadened the feeling between the two lovers, and that even after knowing each other so closely for so long, they are still able to surprise and delight each other. Against the contrast of the excruciatingly dark scenario, these flickers of warmth and humanity are all the more touching and meaningful, and it is through this, in the face of all the bleakness Haneke throws at his characters - indifferent offspring, coldly efficient health-care providers, an all-encompassing feeling of hopelessness - that Amour does in fact manage to turn itself into something meaningful and deep, rather than just something savage and exploitative, coasting on the human fear of death.

There are missteps along the way: I feel something awfully close to hatred for the opening scene, and Haneke sprinkles a lot of strong-armed symbolism throughout the film, but especially in the last ten minutes; and for those of us with a severe allergy to symbolism, it feels like nothing so much as a film that severely and intractably loses its nerve, and that on the heels of a bold climax that, feels at one and the same moment totally unearned in its casual meanness, and also the only reasonable way the story could have ended. To stretch that out in sticky, cryptic images that only muddy the crisp brutality of the central drama robs the climax of its power. But Riva, Trintignant: they are immutable, and they are very much the best thing about a movie that wants a little bit too badly to make us feel awful, just because it can.