Death Watch (1980)
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
December 11 at BAM, part of its Max von Sydow series
If nothing else, BAM's decision to program director Tavernier's languid sci-fi drama as part of its current Max von Sydow retrospective is further proof of the institution's eclecticism. Doing the math, Von Sydow doesn't appear in Death Watch until the film is 111 minutes into its 130—and he isn't even in those remaining 19 minutes. Still, maybe selecting this particular film has a sly meta-conceit: maybe it's like saying that oftentimes, when von Sydow is a supporting cast member, it feels like we're just waiting for him to enliven the film's proceedings with his characteristically demure charm. Let's run with that half-baked conceit for a moment!
Romy Schneider plays a woman who lives in a drab future in which death is so rare that it's cause for a reality-show experiment. Harvey Keitel follows Schneider around, filming her last days using ocular implants that allow him to shoot everything he sees and instantly upload that footage to a television studio run by Harry Dean Stanton's inhuman television producer. ("Everything is of interest, but nothing matters," as Schneider's character balks at Stanton.) For the longest time, Death Watch's plot is directionless. Schneider's character doesn't know what to do with herself, and it takes her some time to acknowledge (let alone get accustomed to) Keitel's presence. But then von Sydow shows up and he gives her a sense of perspective: "Everything has to mean something," even if not everything is "significant." Max von Sydow: always worth the wait.