Death Watch – review

Bernard Tavernier's Death Watch (La Mort en Direct)Bernard Tavernier's Death Watch (La Mort en Direct)

Bernard Tavernier's Death Watch (La Mort en Direct)

REVIEW: Anton Bitel


A dystopian science fiction from 1980 directed by Bernard Tavernier (!), set mostly in Glasgow (!?), starring Harvey Keitel, Romy Schneider, Harry Dean Stanton, Max von Sydow and a debuting Robbie Coltrane (!?!). So deliriously improbable is the blend of elements contributing to Death Watch, and so prescient is its peculiar version of the future, that you can almost forgive this curio the rather tepid character drama that holds together all its odd particulars.

Photographer Roddy (Keitel) has just had prototype cameras installed in his eyes by his employer NTV, enabling the network to record everything that he sees. His assignment is to hook up with Katherine Mortenhoe (Schneider), a spirited young writer, and secretly to film her last weeks as she succumbs to a terminal disease, so that what he sees can be broadcast (in a programme called Death Watch) to a populace that has become divorced from the reality of non-violent death. Despite the unscrupulousness of his employer Vincent Ferriman (Stanton), Roddy goes into the job with his eyes wide open – but as he travels down the west coast with Katherine in search of the cultured ex-husband (von Sydow) whose surname she has kept despite remarrying, Roddy sees for the first time the moral horror of his own actions, and so finds himself cast as Oedipus in a futurist tragedy.

Taken separately, all the performances here are mannered and messy in the finest tradition of Seventies cinema, but together the characters never really gel – with the contrast between Keitel’s twitchy ‘method’ and Schneider’s more spontaneous style  encapsulating the tonal dissonances running through the film. One might, charitably, put down the alienating effect of all these characters’ interactions to the sense of dispassionate detachment that is meant to mark the age in which the film is set – but that does not really explain the meandering and rather pointless nature of Roddy’s personal journey, or the central yet distractingly irrelevant role played by Roddy’s estranged wife Tracey (Liotard) as the film’s narrator.

Yet if the story of Death Watch never quite connects, the dystopian colours that hang from it have become only more interesting with the passage of time. For Tavernier’s understated, FX-free vision of a sanitised world riven by class divisions, removed from natural biological processes, obsessed with media celebrity and addicted to the voyeuristic vicariousness of reality TV avant la lettre, seems now to be less fantasy than accurate prophecy.

3 stars

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