(Bertrand Tavernier, 1980)
This unnervingly prophetic film is a product of an era when Science Fiction was still sometimes a genre for grown-ups. This is science fiction without any other generic component; with no aliens or spaceships or futuristic weaponry or fight scenes. Instead what we have are ideas and emotions, the stuff of drama.
Set in a near-future where natural death has been more or less cured by medicine, the story follows two characters. Ronny (Harvey Keitel) allows the television corporation he works for to install a camera behind his eyes. He can no longer sleep or dream, but everything he sees is recorded, forever. The purpose of this procedure is to allow him to monitor the rare death of an individual for a new show, "Death Watch". The chosen individual is Katherine (Romy Schneider). Except Katherine rejects the opportunity, preferring to die alone, with dignity, and goes on the run from the contract she has signed. So Ronny's boss (Harry Dean Stanton) dispatches him to find and befriend her in her last few weeks, and the show goes out as planned. But there are concerns about Ronny's health and sanity, and about Katherine's plans for her own demise.
The show "Death Watch" would sit comfortably on modern television schedules, and a few of the conversations in the film about the morality of the project (Katherine tells the tv executive: "For you, everything is of importance and nothing matters") play like editorials from todays newspapers.
That script, by David Rayfiel, is serious and earnest in an old-fashioned way, its characters patiently drawn, its pacing deliberate. Tavernier conjures up a thick atmosphere. Shooting in Glasgow in 1979, he has captured an industrial city as it ceases to function and just before the inevitable resuscitation of the 1980s, and so Death Watch is filled with lovely shots of this crumbling, once-magisterial city, its wastelands and backstreets, the skies above rolling with black unease.
If it is a trifle unrelenting in its gloominess - and Pierre William Glenn's photography ensures that it is never less than beautifully downbeat - well, that may be because it deals in big themes. Tavernier and Rayfiel are interested in death and our response to it, and their character study of Katherine finally suggests that for her, death is a rebellion against the dystopian world she lives in, where there is little capacity for either misery or joy. The final act - playing out by a Loch, where Katherine is reunited with her ex-husband (Max Von Sydow) has its own intensity of feeling, a genuine spring of regret and sadness which is extremely affecting.
It is, however, an odd film, tonally uneven and perhaps a little too ambitious. The moments of poetry sprinkled throughout do not always blend with the melodrama and contrivance of much of the material. But the cast is tremendous - Keitel's nervy presence contrasts nicely with Schneider's luminous spirit, and they both have terrific scenes with Dean Stanton - while Tavernier's direction is masterful throughout. He captures Glasgow and the Highlands with a few exhilarating crane shots, and chooses to film a chase through the docks in one long, incredible steadicam movement. His determination to be serious also works, ultimately, in the films favour, granting it a chilly gravitas denied to much science fiction.