"Amour" confronts the end with a steady gaze. It is a double portrait of Anne and Georges, elderly Parisian music teachers enjoying a serene, cultivated retirement. The opening shots, static and calm, emphasize their closeness after decades of marriage. They are side by side in the audience as one of their protégés performs a concert. On the bus home they sit shoulder to shoulder in companionable silence. Their apartment is tasteful and snug; they are never more than a few steps apart.

All the more shattering, then, when one ordinary morning Anne goes silent and freezes momentarily like a clockwork figure whose gears have frozen. Then she returns to her old self again, or seemingly so. The repercussions of that brief stroke are the backdrop for Michael Haneke's austere, tender and lucid portrait of inevitable decline.

The film is literally a chamber piece, with its two characters, financially comfortable but isolated by age and Anne's increasing infirmity. Following a hospital stay, she makes Georges promise never to return her there again. All the action occurs inside the walls of their apartment, over a period of a few months, as illness makes their home an infirmary and a prison.

The players are two veterans of French postwar cinema, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant. Roles as radiantly romantic figures from earlier in their careers add a poignant note to their work here. We can imagine the happy years when they were young and beautiful. Haneke's focus is on the way a lifelong relationship must change as one partner becomes feeble, dependent, a needy, fretful infant in second childhood. That's the crucible in which the nature of a couple's love is tested.

Each actor draws on a lifetime's worth of experience, performing with grace and rare, uncompromising realism. Haneke has no use for the rosy platitudes of American mainstream cinema. His story of love under life's most extreme test is deliberately discomfiting, one of the most moving, intelligent and thought-provoking studies of personal crisis since the era of Ingmar Bergman.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186 • On Twitter: @ColinCovert