As I write this, I’ve seen 5 out of 8 episodes of series 1 of the excellent and often startling French drama series The Returned. At the time of writing, I have no idea what is going to happen or what logic and rationale there might be for the events witnessed, but this I do know: it’s utterly compelling, if not – literally and metaphorically – haunting. Even moments like a butterfly breaking free of a cabinet and breaking glass to escape are disturbing in ways that more explicit horror might not achieve.
There is something ethereal in the return of the dead, but unlike zombie movies you’ve seen before the dead here are puzzled, sometimes eliptical and occasionally eloquent, but all are decidedly nibblish. Some are vengeful over those who caused their deaths, others surprised to find they have been away and curious to know about themselves – to the point of finding their own gravestones. Others try to make up for lost time, but for all their very real status is that they are dead, and vary from the very young (the very strange Victor) to the comparatively old. Why and how they have been returned they cannot say, nor the folk of the town, nor the audience. Only the scriptwriter and the director (one and the same) are in on the conspiracy!
Other mysteries abound too – the power cuts, the falling water levels in the reservoir, the drowned animals, the open wound on the back of Léna, twin sister to the returned Camille. There is a serial killer who was killed by his own brother, but who returns at a time when similar cases begin to emerge, and the relevance of his appearing to bite the stomachs of his victims. Wikipedia’s synopsis explains the context without beginning to explain the whys and hows:
In a small mountain town, many dead people reappear, apparently alive and normal: road accident victim teenager Camille; suicidal bridegroom Simon; “Victor”, a small boy who was murdered by burglars; and Serge, a serial killer. They try to resume their lives as strange phenomena occur: amongst recurring power outages, the water level of the dam mysteriously lowers, revealing the presence of dead animals and a church steeple and strange marks appear on the bodies of the living and the dead.
In fact, there is more than a little David Lynch about these goings-on. I was reminded of Lynch’s legendary Twin Peaks, a series in which much happens without the audience ever being any the wiser, but in which the ambiguity and the fact that loose ends are not necessarily tied up is decidedly less important than the community, the people, their foibles, their relationships and their histories uncovered through the return of loved ones from beyond the grave; in other words, the reactions to the phenomenon rather than the phenomenon itself.
But since there is to be a second series, we can expect the story of what happens now the dead are among the community to run and run. Just as well – there is plenty to tell, and most characters are given a personal and a professional life, which inevitably merge as their tales are told. Perhaps the best background is to quote Wikipedia once more:
- Anne Consigny as Claire, mother to Camille and Lena, who separated from her husband Jérôme shortly after Camille’s death, and later began seeing Pierre.
- Yara Pilartz as Camille, a fifteen-year-old girl who died in a bus accident four years ago, before reappearing in the present.
- Jenna Thiam as Lena, Camille’s twin sister, now four years older than her sister.
- Frédéric Pierrot as Jérôme, the twins’ father.
- Jean-François Sivadier as Pierre, Claire’s partner, a religious man who runs the local Helping Hand shelter. He has begun to stockpile food and firearms in the belief that the Revenants are a sign of the end of days.
- Clotilde Hesme as Adèle, a young mother who was due to marry Simon before his death ten years ago, and who subsequently gave birth to their daughter Chloé. She began a relationship with Thomas, and is soon due to marry him.
- Pierre Perrier as Simon, a young man who was to marry Adèle before his death ten years ago. Though he was told he committed suicide, he has his doubts, as he has been unable to remember his mental state leading up to his death.
- Samir Guesmi as Thomas, captain of the local police department, and partner of Adèle.
- Céline Sallette as Julie, a nurse who was attacked by serial killer Serge seven years ago, but who managed to survive. She was once Laure’s partner, but the attack drove them apart and they have remained distant ever since. She becomes protective over the boy that follows her home and places his trust in her, and names him Victor.
- Alix Poisson as Laure, a police officer and Julie’s former partner.
- Swann Nambotin as “Victor”, a boy that reappears and follows Julie, believing her to be the “fairy” his mother spoke of that would look out for him if she were gone. His real name is Louis, and he was killed thirty years ago by one of two intruders who also killed the rest of his family; he later discovered the other intruder was Pierre. On the day of the bus accident, the driver swerved to avoid Victor, who was standing in the road. Victor has the ability to make others see visions, including the manner of someone else’s death.
- Laetitia de Fombelle as Madame Costa, who died thirty years ago, though she refuses to say how. Her reappearance causes her husband to commit suicide.
- Guillaume Gouix as Serge, a serial killer responsible for the murder of several women, whose modus operandi included eating the internal organs of those victims he stabbed. He was killed seven years ago when his brother Toni decided to put an end to any more killing by knocking his brother out and burying him alive.
- Grégory Gadebois as Toni, Serge’s brother. After killing his brother, his mother also died, though how she did so is unclear.
- Ana Girardot as Lucy Clarsen, a waitress. She arrived in town a year before the start of the series, and claims the unusual ability to see the deceased friends or relatives of people she has sex with. At the start of the series she is stabbed by a revived Serge and dies, but becomes a Revenant herself when she begins to heal miraculously. She gradually begins to understand the true nature of the Revenants, eventually becoming their leader.
Of course, all of this would be irrelevant were the basic building blocks of good TV drama not implemented so effectively. First among these is the location, filmed around the Haute-Savoie region to the east of France, notably the city of Annecy, and especially the striking Barrage de Tignes – the dam that dominates the landscape of the series. It is exploited in subdued colours through some excellent cinematography, picking out its brooding atmosphere to perfection. Set elsewhere the series would have a very different character. The landscape is rural yet urban, remote yet connected, its intensity communicates perfectly to the contained, almost claustrophobic nature of the plot.
The direction by Fabrice Gobert (who created and wrote the series) and in some episodes by Frédéric Mermoud, is spare, taut and understated, the tension coolly emphasised by the lilting, sometimes menacing tones of Mogwai‘s music. Gobert’s screenplay may be in French, but it translates well to English, though much of the impact is visual. The craft and imagination in the tale are readily apparent in neat tricks like bringing back an identical twin so she appears four years younger than her sister.
But Gobert’s greatest triumph is eliciting subtly wonderful performances from an excellent cast of adults and children alike. They are breathtaking, naturalistic in a situation that is anything but natural. Were it not for the cast, the whole scenario could easily have spiralled well beyond the confines of credibility, yet somehow you believe in these people – in spite of none being truly sympathetic at heart. If anyone gains respect, it is the touchingly naive Victor, though as the episodes continue the dead become increasingly sinister, perhaps as you would expect?
At any rate, this viewer is hooked and will watch the series through to the end – at which point anticlimax may yet settle in. We shall see. The series is warmly recommended, even though some will find it deeply unsettling.