“Amour” is devastating.

The word, of course, is French for love. As an immensely powerful film, Michael Haneke’s movie opening today has a kind of long-lost sibling – Raymond Carver’s magnificent, haunting short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in which a long-married couple injured in a terrible accident ask only of their remaining time on earth that they remain in each other’s sight.

“Amour” isn’t merely one of the unquestionably great films of 2012, it is, without question, the most surprising. That’s because this laceratingly empathetic film about a devoted elderly couple facing the depredations of mortality comes from Haneke, who has put on screen some of the most detestable moments in contemporary cinema. There are ordinarily peaceful and vehemently nonviolent critics (count me among them) who have wanted to punch Haneke in the snout after watching the Austrian director’s films – most notably the original German language version of “Funny Games,” although Haneke’s almost exact remake in English will also suffice.

Haneke’s virtuosic craftsmanship and mastery of detail as a film director are used here not to give us his usual audience-battering malevolence but rather more empathy for our universal humanity than we could ever possibly stand as a regular cinematic diet. What clearly connects it to other Haneke films is the director’s usual brutal relationship to our sensibilities. In the case of this singular film, though, he’s serving a common humanity he shares with us, not his mind-boggling contempt for us just because we’re a film audience.

Among the many surprises at this year’s Oscars – almost all understandable after seeing this film – are these: it was one of the eight nominees for Best Picture; its lead actress, 85-year-old French film mainstay Emmanuelle Riva, became the oldest actress ever nominated for an Oscar; and director Haneke was nominated for Best Director in a category that excluded Ben Affleck for “Argo” and Kathryn Bigelow for “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Nor, I think, in this case is that due to an academy viewership up in years and all-too-familiar with intimations of the mortality that lies at the core of this story. It is as close to a universal adult experience as any – helplessness during the physical decline and death of a loved one.

The story couldn’t be simpler: Georges and Anne are an elderly couple of former piano teachers who live a quiet and mutually devoted old age in a beautiful Parisian apartment. They keep up with ex-students performing in town. And they read newspapers and magazines. But they are more preoccupied with each other and their everyday lives than with culture, including even the music that was once their lives. No television is visible in their house; we never hear its subdued chatter as their apartment’s basic hum.

They, quite literally – and without untoward drama – live for each other.

And then one morning at breakfast, Anne freezes in her chair. She stares straight ahead, soundlessly. Georges tries to get her attention but can’t. She cannot understand what he’s saying or respond.

The episode is no transient speed bump in their lives. It lasts minutes. And then it seems to pass, after which Georges, for obvious reasons, insists he take Anne to the hospital. They’ll do no such thing, says Anne at first – until she pours a cup of tea into the saucer not the cup. And doesn’t know why.

The next scene we see, they have obviously gone to the hospital. Their lives then become both familiar and horrifyingly strange. We find out she’s had an obstruction in her carotid artery. Her right arm is paralyzed. She makes him promise never to take her back to the hospital.

They become each other’s worlds. Even when one of her former pupils – played by touring pianist Alexandre Tharaud – comes to their apartment for a sympathy visit and plays, at her request, a Beethoven bagatelle, it seems more of a reminder of what is hopelessly lost than a triumph from the past. Sometimes, she says flatly, “I don’t want to go on.”

And worse – much worse – is still to come: another stroke, all of the commonplace but familiar indignities of such terrible decline: loss of speech and control over bodily functions, total inability to impart anything to her husband but confusion and fearful noise.

He deals with it all to the point where he considers visits from their daughter more intrusive than helpful or even loving. He dresses Anne, cleans her, spoon-feeds her, listens to her incoherent interjections and jumbles of words in the forlorn hope that some meaning will materialize.

It is here that you need to know the monumental triumph of Haneke’s cast. Georges, Anne and their daughter are played by actors who virtually define French cinema in our time – Jean-Louis Trintignant, whom Americans first saw with a nude Brigitte Bardot in “And God Created Woman,” Riva, whom we first saw with glistening skin in Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” and Isabelle Huppert playing their daughter.

It’s difficult to convey the power for lifelong filmgoers of seeing Trintignant and Riva – whom we know from sensual youths on screen – in their old age and in these roles. Riva, in particular is, at the beginning, a living symbol of elderly radiance and loveliness. And then, after Anne’s second stroke, this great actress embodies so much that dying can take away while leaving nothing in its wake but confusion, contortion and incapacity.

If you’ve got a heart – or ever had one – “Amour” will tear at it.

It’s far from a perfect film. For all Georges and Anne’s conjugal devotion, there seems to be a weird lack of intimacy. Even at the beginning before Anne is stricken, they seem to have no private jokes or references. Even in the daily business of a five-decade marriage, there doesn’t seem any evidence that they have ever, in their lives together, truly enjoyed talking to each other. They have gone beyond comfort to a kind of joyless unanimity.

The coda of this death sonata is strangely unsatisfying. The dramatic climax of the film is both shocking and predictable in its way. But in the minutes that follow, it’s as if Haneke doesn’t know how to get his actors off screen. Nor does he seem to know how to turn his camera off.

You can’t blame him. After being previously responsible for so much coldness and contempt on film, he has shown us so much love in this movie that he has been hopelessly confused by it.

At the end of this exceptional film, its creator himself, I think, no longer knows what we talk about when we talk about love.


Four stars

Starring: Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud

Director: Michael Haneke

Running time: 127 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material including a disturbing act, and brief language. In French with subtitles.

The Lowdown: A devoted elderly couple faces the terrifying consequences of human mortality.