Death Watch REVIEW

Harvey Keitel and Romy Schneider in Death Watch.

"I promise not to do that through your car window again."

Release Date: 5 November 2012
1980 | 12 | 125 minutes | £15.99 (DVD)/£17.99 (Blu-ray)
Distributor: Park Circus
Director: Bertrand Tavernier
Cast: Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, Harry Dean Stanton, Thérèse Liotard, Max von Sydow

Sometimes it can take a few decades before a work of fiction really starts to acquire an aura of prescience. That’s the case with David G Compton’s near-future fable The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (aka The Unsleeping Eye), first published in 1973, and explains why this weirdly cosmopolitan film adaptation – shot in Glasgow, by a French director, with American leads – was recently reissued to cinemas.

Romy Schneider plays Katharine, a woman who’s informed she has an incurable disease. In this near-future where death is “the new pornography” and “everything’s of interest, but nothing really matters”, that’s a rare event which inspires public fascination, so she’s offered a fortune to allow her last days to be filmed. Refusing, Katharine goes on the lam, only to fall in with Roddy (Harvey Keitel), who, unbeknownst to her, is a TV cameraman who’s had cameras implanted in his eyes. We give it six months before that’s the premise of a Channel 5 show.

It’s a curiously unsatisfying film in some ways: a little too restrained; too detached. This near-future world looks exactly like 1980 Glasgow, and while there are intriguing glimpses of social change (Katharine works in “computer books”; there’s a campaign to “keep living teachers”; supermarkets pipe subliminal messages through speakers urging customers not to steal), certain aspects are never really satisfactorily unpacked for the viewer (there seem to be groups of professional strikers, for example). No one ever spells out to Katharine what exactly she’s dying of or how long she’s got, so there’s no sense of a ticking clock, and it makes no sense that she can move about so freely when her face is plastered over billboards and she’s a TV sensation. Two major twists are casually tossed away as if Bertrand Tavernier believes it would be vulgarly melodramatic to make a big deal of them. He seems to have the same attitude to affect in general: only in the later stages does Katherine’s plight start to become touching. Until then, it’s all too coolly dispassionate.

That said, the central argument about privacy and voyeurism can’t fail to intrigue in this era of wall-to-wall reality TV. There are some bravura sequences which make good use of locations (in one, Katharine’s pursued through a chaotic dockside market by, of all people, a young Robbie Coltrane), and some amusingly barking dialogue non-sequiturs (at one point, poor Max Von Sydow is lumbered with mournfully opining about the soaring cost of broccoli).

But perhaps the most fascinating thing about Death Watch is the chance to see heroes of American independent cinema like Harvey Keitel and Harry Dean Stanton padding about the grey, wet streets of Glasgow, looking so out of place that they might as well have just been beamed down by a flying saucer.


An interview with the director (39 minutes), photos, and the trailer.

Ian Berriman

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