Death Watch Review

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  • Death Watch film still


Romy Schneider sizzles in Bertrand Tavernier's 1980 kitchen sink sci-fi, which focuses on class-war politics and media exploitation.

This fascinating and flawed fifth feature from Bertrand Tavernier combines '80s class-war politics and media exploitation with an homage to such kitchen sink sci-fi as Godard’s Alphaville and Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451.

Set in a semi-dilapidated Glasgow of the future, well-to-do author Katherine Mortenhoe (the always- scintillating Romy Schneider) is selected as a patsy by an ethically unscrupulous TV network to star in their hit reality series, Death Watch.

In this proposed future, all diseases have been cured and so the (predominantly bourgeois) viewing public have become numbed to the experience of watching someone die. With a video camera surgically implanted into his left eye, ace investigative reporter Roddy (Harvey Keitel) wheedles his way into Katherine’s life after she’s been diagnosed with some spurious, life-threatening illness and, at the wont of his sleazy paymaster, Vincent (Harry Dean Stanton), keeps the camera rolling.

Though Roddy is initially presented as icy and impenetrable, it’s not long before he’s cooing over Katherine and regretting his part in the whole sorry endeavour (in turn revealing a glaring conceptual defect regarding the mechanics of the camera implant). The scenes with Keitel and Schneider are raw and intimate despite the fact that, dramatically speaking, the pair seem like an ill-fitting screen couple. Stanton is left as a cynical mouthpiece for the corporation which justifies its actions by pointing to the sky-high ratings and saying that they’re simply serving the appetites of a bloodthirsty populous.

While it’s easy to draw parallels between Death Watch and the largely execrable deluge of reality TV that fugs up our dials, this presents a more flagrantly voyeuristic take on the phenomenon. Tavernier and writer David Rayfiel (adapting DG Compton’s 1973 novel, 'The Unsleeping Eye') are interested in the willingness of cultural elites to abuse and disavow the taboo of death for their own ill-gotten gains.

It’s a metaphor that Tavernier cleverly stretches to both the police and government as the grubby Glasgow he depicts is rife with fear, crime, poverty and death.


A bizarre ’80s sci-fi satire from Bertrand Tavernier with Romy Schneider and Harvey Keitel. Lunatic enough for ya?



Romy Schneider positively sizzles while the atmosphere remains suitably chilly.


In Retrospect

A worthy rediscovery with the philosophical chops to match its sweeping genre ambitions.

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