Amour (French)

It’s not surprising that a Michael Haneke film won the top prize at Cannes — it had happened before, with “The White Ribbon.” What’s surprising about the 2012 honors for “Amour” is that it was the “safe” choice this time. The austere Austrian who made the controversial and unsettling “Funny Games,” “The Piano Teacher,” and “Cache” took a more middle-of-the-road approach with “Amour”: less provocation, more compassion.

Don’t worry that Haneke has gone soft, though. His story of an elderly man, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), caring for his beloved wife, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), after a debilitating stroke is unnerving in its own way — heartfelt and tender, but with an undercurrent of foreboding. This sense of dread stems partly from our assumption that something bad is always bound to happen in a Haneke film (Georges and Anne are favorite character names of his), but more because we know that sooner or later, whether it happens within the time frame of the film or not, there’s only one way that a story of two very old people in poor health can end: these people are going to die. And so are you, and so is everyone you love.

Haneke’s cold style of long takes and frequent silences forces us to spend a lot of time doing nothing with Georges and Anne, which the sympathetic performances make us happy to do. (“Happy” may not be the right word.) Riva and Trintignant are veterans of European cinema — she was in “Hiroshima, mon amour” and “Three Colors: Blue”; he was in “Z” and “A Man and a Woman” — and their natural, unaffected performances are so realistically endearing that we’re liable to overlook how difficult they are for an actor to achieve. They play dignified people being stripped of dignity by the aging process, which might more accurately be termed the dying process. So what makes it worthwhile for the characters, not to mention for the audience watching? You’ll notice Haneke didn’t call the film “Death,” he called it “Love.”

B+ (2 hrs., 7 min.; French with subtitles; PG-13, a little profanity, mature themes, brief partial nudity.)