The dead have returned. But this is a homecoming like no other.
Satisfying the hunger of movie and television consumers in dire need of original content grows more difficult with each and every passing year. Not only do the people who produce content want to release more of the same, but the very fact of the matter is that nearly every story has already been told. What bold, creative new ideas can emerge in this early 21st century, where the quantity of the content grows exponentially at a dizzying rate? Making a television show that looks, sounds, and most importantly feels like no other is no small order. One option is to genre mash; that is, splicing two or more disparate genres together to make something that, while familiar, at least tries to take old material in a fresh direction. This is, however, easier said than done.
Enter Fabrice Gobert, a French writer-director who, in 2012, decided to extend a highly respected 2004 film, They Came Back (Les Revenants), into a television series titled The Returned (once again, Les Revenants). The premise takes advantage of the spectacular popularity of zombie stories that have dominated both the silver and television screens for some years but turns the entire concept onto its head in a tremendously mature, provocative, and tasteful fashion. When watching the show, one completely forgets that the basis of the entire plot is usually fit for tales of horror and fright.
Set in a remote French town surrounded by awe-inspiring mountains, the series opens with a school bus filled with children and teens riding along the road by a valley en route for a class activity. For reasons explained much later in the series, the driver loses control and steers the vehicle off a cliff, killing everyone instantly, including 15-year-old Camille (Yara Pilartz). A scene occurring a few years later at a community center sees a group of parents who lost their young in the accident discuss the implementation of a monument in honour of the departed. Among them are Camille’s mother Claire (Anne Consigny), stepfather Pierre (Jean-François Sivadier) and biological father, the tempestuous Jérôme (Frédéric Pierrot). Little do they know that at that very moment Camille, fully dressed as she was the day of the tragic event and devoid of any scars, is walking back home. Her inexplicable return shocks Claire, Pierre, Jérôme, and Camille’s twin sister Léna (Jenna Thiam), now four years her elder. Camille seems her usual self, unaware of what happened or of the fact that she has been dead for some time already. Soon enough, more of the town’s deceased come back to life, oblivious of their demise and wanting to regain their past lives and move on. If only things were that simple.
On one hand, The Returned’s general storyline prefers to keep things intimate and reliant on character relationships under these most extraordinary of circumstances. On the other, Fabrice Gobert and writers Emmannuelle Carrère and Fabien Adda choose to cover a wide canvas by spreading the plot across multiple individuals, several of whom only meet one another intermittently until the season’s conclusion. Among them are former lovers Adèle (Clotilde Hesme) and the deceased Simon (Pierre Perrier), police captain Thomas (Samir Guesmi), Adèle’s current fiancé Julie (Céline Sallette), a single nurse who reluctantly takes into her care a lost boy named Victor (Swann Nambotin), and the brother duo of Toni (Grégory Gadebois) and deceased serial killer Serge (Guillaume Goulx) who feasted on women’s stomachs.
The Case for a Thinking Person’s Supernatural Story
The beauty of The Returned rests in how it calmly forsakes the thrills traditionally associated with stories about the living dead, instead, focusing its efforts on poking at one of the deepest, most instinctive thoughts processes mourners go through: the desire to see their dead ones again, the wish that the tragic event had never happened and that they could go on with their lives as before. In other words, pleading for a second chance at life. Camille, Victor, Simon, and the other Returned are not flesh-eating zombies who come back to torment the living, but supposedly their real selves, back in one piece and fully cognizant, save for them having no memory of their deaths. It’s a brilliant set-up, one that deliberately strays from popular entries in the genre in order to tackle an issue that can engage the viewer on a far deeper level, both emotionally and psychologically.
As is often argued, the advantage a television show can claim over a movie is that the duration of the entire running time, from the first episode to the last, is much greater than that of a film. Fabrice Gobert and company embrace said advantage in offering viewers a slow but consistently interesting development of story, plot, and character relationships. Each episode begins with a title card featuring the name of a particular character, most often one of the living dead, followed by a scene occurring in the life of said individual just prior to their demise. Smartly, the show’s writers avoid the simple strategy of dedicating an entire episode to a single character and his or her surrounding. The entire cast makes appearances in each entry, thereby allowing Gobert to provide a little bit of personal backstory at the beginning of each episode, before continuing the greater story at large after the opening scene.
There are the obvious reasons why the show works as well as it does, such as the caliber of the acting (there is nary a weak link in the bunch) and the beautifully cold, monochromatic cinematography, courtesy of DOP Patrick Blossier. What augments these qualities is the intelligence with which the show goes about handling its premise. What would it actually be like if one’s long-dead sister suddenly returned to reintegrate into familiar life, or a lover, or a brother, or a wife? The sadness at the passing of one dear to one’s heart is excruciating, yet humans know that the re-emergence of a deceased is impossible. It would completely fly in the face of everything that is known and understood in human biology. Because it is impossible, humans go through a period of mourning before moving on with their lives. There is no second option.
The Returned allows people to live vicariously through a ludicrous yet emotionally compelling premise. What would it be like if the dead could actually come back without, it seems, any lingering symptoms of their demise? The manner in which the characters, both the mourners and the Returned, wrestle with this extraordinary paradigm shift comes across as pretty much how humans would react in real life: initial incredulity mixed with apprehension and even a little bit of fear after which, when everything seems okay, they would do their best to live as before, knowing full well that the miracle would have to be protected from a suspicious world. The behavioral patterns, made all the more effective by the stellar performances, are what carry Gobert’s show to greater heights. Not everyone reacts in the same way to the sudden reappearance of the deceased. Some reject them as monsters, others choose to accept the new reality more quickly, while others who have not seen their lost ones make a miraculous return wallow in anger for their misfortune. The full gambit is explored with deft, maturity, and skill, making the first half of the season excellent, gripping television.
As the episodes move along, Gobert and his team aim a little higher and try to go beyond the simpler premise the show starts with in order to construct a larger mythology, the pieces of which are shared incrementally with each passing installment. This is, alas, where The Returned begins to show some wobbly legs. Striking the right balance between story and plot, two similar but not identical facets of filmmaking, is something many a screenwriter may be blamed for failing to achieve. For all intents and purposes, the plot as it were is not as compelling as the story of these people learning to live under groundbreaking circumstances. While the plot is not bad per se, it’s simply not as engaging. There is an intermittent reminder that the water levels in a lake held up by a nearby dam are lowering daily, after which divers discover that an entire host of various fauna has inexplicably committed suicide by drowning in said lake. Clearly, there is a link between the odd happenings at the lake and the sudden return of the buried. Additionally, the viewers get to witness the full death and re-awakening cycle of one character, a young woman named Lucy (Ana Girardot) who, prior to her murder, could help people communicate with the dead when fornicating with them. Her purpose overall in this first season feels more in service of the plot than as a fully realized character.
Every time the show cuts away from the core cast to reveal bits and pieces of the supernatural mystery, it hurts the momentum gathered up until then. This all leads up to the season finale that aims for an epic feel in the more traditionally understood sense of the term. Again, it isn’t ‘bad’, only not as interesting as most of what came before. The cliffhanger ending promises a second season that will hinge more on the supernatural mystery than the first season did. Here’s hoping Gobert and his team have something good in store and don’t lose sight of what made the show strong in the first place.
On a final note, the musical score, written by Scottish rock band Mogwai, is a real treat. As often the case in any good film or television show, the music, when done with the correctly adjusted sensibility, can lift a project to new heights. In the case of The Returned, Mogwai’s efforts complement the tone of both the story and the visuals. The story is very rich in emotional gravitas, whilst the cinematography and lighting have a colder, duller feel about them. In turn, the music finds an exquisite balance, mixing things up with slow, rhythmic rock hymns and some pieces that are far simpler in instrumentation, most notably the melodic, suitably haunting theme that plays over the opening credits. None of the music aims for a ‘wow’ factor, but that is partially what makes it so effective. Much like most of the show itself, the score is understated and deceptively catchy.
In a nutshell, The Returned may be seen as an answer to The Walking Dead. Whereas the latter, itself an amazingly popular show, relishes in the genre aspects of a zombie apocalypse story, Fabrice Gobert’s endeavor shuns almost all conventions born of a plot involving a town plagued by the return of the dead. Terrifically acted, beautifully shot, and scored, The Returned‘s first season is impressive for its appealingly emotional telling of a tale usually fit for a horror fest. The writing, on the whole, is strong, although some decisions which creep in during the latter half and become more pronounced during the finale may not sit well with everybody. The show is at its best when letting the characters breathe, and at its weakest when it feels the obligation to advance the plot.