Saturday, April 26, 2014

1980 Week: Death Watch

          Toward the end of the meditative sci-fi drama Death Watch, Max Von Sydow shows up for an extended cameo as a professor who has rediscovered an obscure medieval composition by Robert de Bauleac. Later, when the piece’s jagged strains accompany scenes of characters battling over a dying woman’s right to privacy, the juxtaposition is weirdly perfect. This fusion of image and music becomes even more fitting when one discovers that neither Robert de Bauleac for his composition ever existed—the man was an invention of cowriter/director Bertrand Tavernier’s creative team, and the music was generated by the film’s, composer, Antoine Duhamel. Such elaborate flourishes explain why Death Watch is so interesting, even though the film is strange and undisciplined.
          In the near future, when death by disease has become rare, a young woman named Katherine (Romy Schneider) gets a terminal diagnosis from her doctor. Soon, callous TV executive Vincent (Harry Dean Stanton) contrives to film Katherine’s last days for a nonfiction series called Death Watch. In order to secure intimate footage without Katherine’s knowledge, Vincent persuades a cameraman, Roddy (Harvey Keitel), to have his eyes replaced with cameras. Roddy insinuates himself into Katherine’s life and surreptitiously records their road trip across the European countryside. Based on a novel by David Compton, the story of Death Watch is riddled with logical inconsistencies. For instance, since Katherine signs a contract with Vincent to participate in Death Watch, why is secret filming necessary? Furthermore, at 128 leisurely minutes, Death Watch is way too long.
          Nonetheless, the movie is compelling, prescient, and surprising. Rather than simply condemning crass consumerism, Tavernier’s movie asks questions about the individual’s right to live and die according to principles. Katherine spends the whole movie extricating herself from people who want her to be someone other than herself, in essence choosing authenticity over fakery even as she sells authenticity to create fakery. So, even though Tavernier ultimately fails to unify the provocative elements of Death Watch into a clear statement, he raises enough interesting issues to make the experience worthwhile.
          It helps that Death Watch is a beautiful-looking movie, with cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn capturing grim vistas of burned-out cities, elegant tableaux of Old World interiors, and painterly panoramas of verdant landscapes. (The picture was shot entirely in Scotland.) The leading performances are a mixed bag, with Schneider inhibited by sketchy English and Keitel caught between awkward attempts at romantic-lead charm and clumsy Method-style freakouts. Supporting players fare better, notably Stanton, who is effective as a soulless corporate weasel, and Von Sydow, who steals the picture with his commanding presence. Death Watch is an odd movie filled with superfluous scenes, but the narrative bloat gives Tavernier time to cast a hypnotic spell.

Death Watch: GROOVY


AndyHunt said...

Thanks for this review...I had only heard of this movie once many years ago, so it passed completely under my radar. it sounds like my kind of movie (amongst so many other kinds).

On the subject of Von Sydow, how about a review of his other 1980 sci-fi outing, the totally polar opposite 'Flash Gordon' ?

Frank said...

Just caught this film on TCM Underground. Agree with your assessment that it's disjointed, ponderous and certainly 30 minutes too long. Yet, it was compelling enough to keep me hanging in until the unsurprising odd finale. Fascinating and impressive that the choral music and back story on the fictitious 14th century Robert de Baulea was created specifically for this film. Still trying to figure this one out. Although that just may be the point.