Sunday, 3 June 2012

I see you: "Death Watch"

With Godard licking his wounds after the failure of his Marxist-Leninist project, and Truffaut settling into a rhythm of very Truffautish semiautobiographical dramas, Bertrand Tavernier was the razor-sharp Claude Chabrol's foremost rival for the title of most interesting French director of the 1970s. That Tavernier's 1980 sci-fi drama Death Watch should return to UK cinemas just as The Cabin in the Woods ends its theatrical run, and in the week Big Brother - flagging, but still, apparently, commercially viable - returns to our television screens can be seen as felicitous coincidence: it's one of those world-full-of-cameras fables that seeks to ask, some way behind Hitchcock, but a fair while before anybody else thought to do it, just how far we'd be prepared to watch, and how much stimulation we actually require before we switch off for the night.

Tavernier's film is set in a future world, but shot in turn-of-the-80s Glasgow, shown as tired and lived-in, in dire need of colour, sensation, new ideas; the opening crane shot has the city's skyline emerging from a cemetery, and it's clear that's where everybody will be returning after a few words from our sponsors. In this world, where novels are churned out by computer program and citizens are urged to recycle their water supplies, jobbing cameramen like Harvey Keitel's Roddy can have recording devices implanted in their very eyeballs so as to monitor their subjects more efficiently (not to mention covertly). Roddy's allotted subject is Katherine (Romy Schneider), a writer who's just been informed she has a terminal illness, making her perfect emotional pablum for an upcoming reality-cast. 

Decades on, the sight of individuals expiring in and around prime-time has very nearly become a commonplace, but there's a particular cruelty to the way Katherine is elevated to the standing of made-for-TV martyr: only when the press show up on her doorstep does she learn the show's cynical producer (Harry Dean Stanton, tiredness already in his bones) has deemed her a worthy subject. "There are private things," she asserts, when she goes to confront him in his production office. "Are there?," he retorts. "Why?" Katherine assents to the show, chiefly to cover her ailing father's medical bills, but then initiates a cat-and-mouse game - between seen and seers, subject and audience - by venturing into the Highlands, Roddy in tow, hoping that the reception up there will be patchy enough to gain some much-needed perspective on what remains of her life.

In this escape bid - vast (and very Godardish) billboards intruding on what would otherwise be an unspoilt paradise - there's maybe a hint of the just-filmed Logan's Run, yet where Hollywood elected to put Jenny Agutter in a loincloth, Tavernier and his co-writer, the novelist David Rayfiel, choose to hone in on a man and a woman carrying notable baggage around with them. (Roddy has a complicated, unresolved relationship with his ex-wife.) This heavy-footed, heavy-hearted film proves less interested in the chase than the moral and philosophical implications of the show's project: it's something like Sullivan's Travels updated for a world becoming saturated with images. (Contemporary viewers may also be reminded of Andrew Niccol's recent work, although Tavernier and Rayfiel ultimately prove far less optimistic in their conclusions.)

For all this, I don't think Death Watch quite counts as a lost classic. Keitel is somewhat miscast in the everyman role (he's better suited to Roddy's later torment, getting one great Methody moment scrabbling round on a beach like a crab), and one misses the irreverence and joie de vivre of Tavernier's thrillers and period pieces from this moment. Yet - as befits a film where cameras are central - it is weirdly illustrative of the difference between Movies Then and (Most) Movies Now. The Cabin in the Woods, gigglingly high on its postmodern conviction that Nothing Really Matters, treated this set-up as the basis for an enjoyable yet only mildly pointed joke. Tavernier, working at a time when everything was still very much up for grabs, casts with grave purpose: Max von Sydow, on loan from Bergman, as an exemplar of a better world - exiled from mediated images, yet still living the good life, surrounded by art and literature - and Schneider, her beauty still evident yet fading in one of her last roles before her premature death. Could she have known she was unwell? Did Tavernier and Keitel realise they really were filming a woman not long for this world? The film's doubt is timeless; what it's gained over the years is a morbid poetry.

Death Watch is on selected release.

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