Reality TV, media surveillance, the cult of celebrity – Bertrand Tavernier’s arty 1980 oddity ‘Death Watch’ might be the archetypal ‘film whose time has come’. But while its themes are remarkably prescient, the movie itself is very much a product of its era, that post-auteur, pre-arthouse hinterland where, in the wake of ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Heaven’s Gate’, movie studios were trying to figure out what the public wanted, and frequently getting it wrong.
‘Death Watch’ is set in an unspecified future where medical advances have meant that no one ever dies in pain (or in public), and willing volunteers can have cameras implanted directly into their brains to capture everything they see. In this case, it’s Roddy (Harvey Keitel), a TV cameraman working for unscrupulous producer Vincent (Harry Dean Stanton), who agrees to follow and film terminally ill Katherine (Romy Schneider) for a radical public broadcasting experiment. But when Katherine goes on the lam – in order, she thinks, to escape media attention – Roddy goes along for the ride, and it’s not long before their relationship becomes more than strictly professional.
While it may be conceptually rooted in science fiction, ‘Death Watch’ is essentially melodramatic in tone and execution: it was shot in late ’70s Glasgow with not a shiny jumpsuit or flying car in sight. This can lead to a sense – as with the recent ‘Never Let Me Go’ – that the film is ashamed of its genre trappings, and is taking pains to avoid them.
Thanks to that superb cast and Tavernier’s graceful direction (one long track through a refugee camp must have influenced ‘Children of Men’), ‘Death Watch’ remains watchable. But, as with so much European cinema from the period, its pretensions prove its undoing, prizing windy philosophising over emotional directness, and becoming just a little bland and forgettable in the process.