Film: Death Watch

Film history is littered with interesting obscurities, and while they’re not always wildly successful— sometimes films are obscure for a reason—they often possess charm, quirkiness, and novelty that is rarely delivered by modern blockbuster Hollywood. That was my reaction to Death Watch (1980), which turned up on Kanopy’s list of suggestions in the wake of Max von Sydow’s recent death. Von Sydow has a small but crucial role here and it only seemed logical to honor his death by watching Death Watch. (See what I did there?)

Death Watch posits a future in which death by natural causes is now an extreme rarity. So when Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider) is diagnosed with a terminal disease, she becomes something of a reluctant celebrity—thanks largely to TV producer Vincent Ferriman (Harry Dean Stanton), who helms a new reality show that plans to chronicle Katherine’s gradual, tragic demise. Katherine, naturally, has no interest in cooperating with this production. But Vincent has an ace up his sleeve to bring his cynical vision to life: Roddy (Harvey Keitel), a former journalist whose eyes have been surgically upgraded to record everything he sees. When Katherine goes on the lam to avoid the media circus surrounding her fate, Roddy callously ingratiates himself with her in order to record her raw emotional reactions to a rapidly worsening condition. Katherine, though, has one last thing to do before she dies,  and is determined to do so on her own terms.

As science fiction, Death Watch is modest and seriously dated, an underpopulated dystopia with certain worldbuilding inconsistencies and quaint, grungy futurism. But it’s also interesting and earnest, something of a time capsule, and ahead of its time in at least one way: its depiction of now-commonplace reality TV phenomenon. In a world (said the announcer) where nobody dies from disease, one woman’s tragic fate becomes a media sensation—it’s a slick concept, especially given its era. Director Bertrand Tavernier examines the idea with a dark, contemplative eye to the ethical fallout of the undertaking, which doesn’t exactly match up with our current understanding of media inauthencity, but is definitely in dialogue with it. None of it looks terribly sophisticated to the modern viewer, mind you, and it’s major plot twist isn’t particularly surprising. But there’s a certain quiet intrigue to this melancholy road trip. Schneider, Keitel, Stanton, von Sydow, and Thérèse Liotard, among others, bring eloquence and nuance to its unusual, genuine dialogue, and in the end it leaves a haunting impression. Overall, it’s not an exceptional film, but it probably deserves a little cult attention.


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