Writer-director Michael Haneke opens his film with a scene of Paris firefighters breaking into the spacious, eerily silent apartment belonging to two retired musicians, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva.
The couple, Georges and Anne, has not been heard from in a few days. One fireman covers his nose with a cloth; there's no fire, no smoke, but then we discover Anne's body, her deathbed pillow strewn, just so, with flower petals. Then "Amour" travels back to relay how she came to her final resting place.
Small, sure and stunningly acted, this is a picture of exacting control, which is to be expected from Haneke, whose works include "Cache" and "The White Ribbon," and whose "Funny Games," "The Piano Teacher" and others taunted audiences with exercises in narrative cruelty.
"Amour" is no stranger to that sensibility; at one point, in fact, before we know him well, Georges is described by Anne, sweetly: "You're a monster sometimes." Even so, "Amour" is not kidding about its title, which comes crashing into the opening sequence just as the corpse is revealed.
Above all the film offers the pleasure of watching two giants of European cinema, the 82-year-old Trintignant and the 85-year-old Riva, navigate a script requiring a lot of its interpreters.
Anne endures a stroke, an unsuccessful surgery, another stroke and partial paralysis.
The couple's daughter, played by Isabelle Huppert, is unhappily married in London to a fellow musician. The relationship between daughter and parents has grown thick with small talk and wary defenses.
On his own as long as he can manage, Georges copes valiantly with the caretaking, though his steely side comes out in an exchange with a less-than-admirable home-care nurse.
Riva, by contrast, appears to hide nothing from the camera. While "Amour" is very much a male-perspective story of old age's ravages, it is the female who suffers (always), and Riva delineates the physical and mental decline of this proud, imperious woman with an utter mastery of craft.
Haneke's patience with the camera, his willingness to allow a two-person scene to develop on its own time, becomes a gift to these actors.
"Amour" has its own answer (or rather Georges') to the question of how best to deal with the mortal coil. It's quintessential Haneke, but it's also something new and freer.