The final tests on Roddy (Harvey Keitel) are complete, and he is ready to partake in one of the most audacious television experiments to date, the date being the near future. Scientists have implanted a camera into his brain, using his eyes as the lens, which as a journalist should offer him unprecedented access to his subject, in this case an unfortunate writer named Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider). Although death from disease has been all but eradicated, she is an exception, for Katherine is terminally ill, and therefore highly interesting to the media...
At a time when very few films were made in Glasgow, Scotland, director Bertrand Tavernier made an exception with La mort en direct, or Death Watch as it was known in English, and watching it today it was assuredly the locations which stole the show. This was made just before the city began its redevelopment in the eighties, and along with Bill Forsyth's contemporary That Sinking Feeling represented a glimpse of how the Dear Green Place used to be, more of a drear grey place really. Tavernier had been warned when he chose it as the location for his bleak sci-fi that he would likely be beaten up and robbed of his equipment should he try to film there, but in effect he had a great time, and there was no trouble at all.
However, if the director and his crew were having fun behind the scenes, it didn't change the fact that Death Watch was one dejected movie as Roddy wanders around after Katherine to capture her every move, and all for the prurient interest of the viewing public. This made the work one of many which in retrospect were claimed to predict the rise of reality television, but actually such media and its accompanying intrusion had been part of journalism, never mind entertainment, ever since the form was invented, it's simply that boundaries were gradually eroded into how much detail it was advisable to go into. In this case, Tavernier posited that death itself would become something worth tuning in for every night.
Not that we see too much of the end result that the public will watch, as apparently Tavernier wasn't very interested in that part, preferring to follow his characters through a chilly-looking city and eventually out into the countryside beyond. When Katherine becomes a celebrity for more than her books and finds people wanting her autograph simply because of the novelty of her impending demise, she is understandably thrown by the whole experience, but after a while the film begins to ask where we in the audience stand on viewing her extinction. Are we equally watching this for our enjoyment, and therefore just as exploitative as the fictional hoi polloi who lap this kind of thing up or can we take some intellectual distance from the experience?
Which if you think about it, was not quite the same thing because we knew we were watching a fiction, one which may be commenting on the real world, but was using science fiction trappings to relate its points, so what you had was a film pulling in two different directions, one the almost satirical and the other more emotional. Making this less palatable was not so much its wallowing in misery and O tempora! O mores! state of the world fretting, but its earnestness which put across its points with a heavy hand, yet was still employing a fantastical framework which was that bit too far to convince in its message. Mind you, this kind of speculation was par for the course in many of its ilk, so while Keitel and Schneider (who really was not long for this world) gave spirited performances to help keep us engaged with the plot, it was really the rich mood of gloom that Tavernier conjured up as a last gasp of nineteen-seventies dystopian cinema which recommended Death Watch. Music by Antoine Duhamel.