Death Watch (1980)
It is hard to believe but "reality television" has been around so long now that, even though there are still complaints about it being the lowest common denominator is programming, it really isn't that shocking anymore. From The Real World to Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the idea of watching others' lives - especially if they have much more money than most of the audience, and behave trashier - is no longer something reserved for "what if?" movies.
For those who put down one type of reality programming there is still something for those who want to pretend they are watching something different, or more high-brow. I watched at least a couple of seasons of The Osbournes myself, enjoyed seeing b-list celebrities (and Jane Wiedlin) on The Surreal Life and still like to watch cooking competition shows. While I would never watch anything with the words Real Housewives or Honey Boo-Boo in them, it really comes down to degrees of trash television. Some of it isn't even close to trash - I'd rather watch American Pickers than the umpteenth version of Law and Order - but there are extremes that networks have not reached yet. The Truman Show is still largely a speculative movie, as is Death Watch.
Released all the way back in 1980, Death Watch is set in a near future facing a number of problems. There are hints of overcrowding, mass unemployment and economic collapse, with most of the population gathered in urban centers with the suburbs and rural areas pretty much abandoned and lawless. A major player in this is the fact that almost nobody dies of natural causes. It is such a rare thing that the show Death Watch is the highest rated on NTV, the central television network in what may or may not still be the UK.
One problem with the show is that it requires a camera crew to follow around the dying person, and making sure they are there at the opportune times is difficult. Thus, Roddy (Harvey Keitel) has video camera lenses implanted in his eyes so that he can act as a hidden camera himself and catch what is needed for the show. The only caveat is that he has to remain where there is a significant source of light or he will go blind - which necessitates him carrying a flashlight to stimulate his eyes in certain situations. The other drawback is that he is unable to sleep, as closing his eyes for any length of time will also have the same effect.
Roddy is tasked with following around romance writer Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider), who is informed by her doctor (William Russell) that she is dying. He is not specific, but she is not concerned with specifics, and neither is Vincent (Harry Dean Stanton), the NTV representative that is responsible for getting her to sign the contract for the show. After taking some time Katherine seems to agree, but flees when visiting a swap meet with her husband (Vadim Glowna). Without her knowledge Roddy follows her as she tries to make her way to visit her first husband Gerald (Max von Sydow) without being hounded by the public, and along the way Roddy and Katherine begin to bond.
I have never figured out if it's a cultural thing or if it was just a hook to get into the American film market, but many French films feature gratuitous nudity and scenes where the idea of consent is riding a fine line. It was refreshing to see this not happening in this movie. While Roddy and Katherine do become friends there is never any sexual element about it; it is strictly platonic, largely because both seem to be carrying a flame for the exes. When the situations arise for Roddy with his own ex-wife Tracey (Thérèse Liotard) or with a lady in a bar (Caroline Langrishe), he is fully aware that even if Vincent is promised he will not be monitored at all times that he is probably lying. It is a minor spoiler but, because of the way things are today and because it is such an easy road to go down, it is important to specify that this movie never goes there.
Where it does go is a number of places, posing questions about how far should voyeuristic tendencies in the media go, and where does one ethically draw the line between being a disinterested party and take a stand. In many ways it is a slower, more thoughtful version of Network, albeit played for drama rather than satire.
Director Bertrand Tavernier, working from a novel by David Compton called The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, builds a story where the journey of two like strangers eclipses the more simple plot regarding ethics. I do not know if the final twist in the movie is also in the book, having not read it, but it is one of the few times Tavernier actually acts with outright condemnation of what is going on. Instead he trusts that he doesn't have to proselytize, feeling that his audience will know right from wrong. He keeps things at a nice pace, although there are parts that start to drag near the end, and while the movie is definitely aimed at the art house crowd he doesn't go off on a number of tangents. Personally from the description I was expecting more of a gritty, exploitation style film, probably with a scratchy print, but though this is not a well-known movie it is obvious that it is well-loved - and, in this case, given a beautiful print on Blu-Ray.
I am thankful for that as Tavernier fell in love with the city of Glasgow and filmed Death Watch in and around the area. Between his direction and the cinematography Pierre-William Glenn I often found myself becoming so lost in the beauty of the almost photographic style of the shots that, even when things did drag, I didn't much care. The plot is what it is, does what it needs to do and is good in its own right, but where Death Watch shines is showing the beauty and ugliness of Glasgow at the time this was made, and many of the tougher aspects of the city underscore the world in which the story is taking place.
There are certain movies that I am a fan of that are divisive even among others who love cult films. I think Death Watch is another to add to the list, as it is one of those that is a bit too artsy for someone wanting a straight, low-budget sci-fi film, and it is a bit too linear for those who want to impress their dates by explaining the movie afterward. It's straightforward in what it means to do, and it succeeds, but beyond that it is one of the most beautiful movies I have seen, rivalling The Shining or The Fellowship of the Ring. I am glad that those who do love this film have not let it go by the wayside.
Death Watch (1980)
Time: 117 minutes
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Romy Schneider, Harry Dean Stanton, Max von Sydow
Director: Bertrand Tavernier