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Five years ago on Halloween the great, disturbing, weirdly magnetic and highly ambitious French series The Returned (Les Revenants) premiered on the Sundance Channel and caused a little explosion in my head.
I don’t really like Halloween. I don’t like horror movies. And, even five years ago, there were so many televisions series that we were all drowning in Peak TV before we called it that and before we knew it would get much, much more crowded. Watching a French series — and a French zombie series at that — didn’t seem like a good way to spend my limited time.
But that’s the thing. The Returned is not really a zombie film. And the “not really” descriptor is important because it kind of is but mostly isn’t and therein lies its true brilliance. Co-written and directed by Fabrice Gobert, The Returned was a natural selection for my ongoing Hidden Gems series because it was such an incredible achievement, where its ambition and restraint combined to create something wholly new, and it triumphed because 90 percent of the crazy things it tried worked. All these years later, it’s still impressive to look at the parts that didn’t quite work and be stunned that the rest did. There was so much creative force coming from Gobert that I kept thinking, episode after episode, that it couldn’t be sustained, but it kept on surprising. The writing, the acting, the decisions made that veered into totally fresh areas, the darkness held back by bouts of humor or eccentricity, the choice of location, the music and particularly Gobert’s atmospheric directing — any part of that could have been off by a tiny fraction and imploded the whole thing.
I was only right with those initial concerns in that it couldn’t be duplicated — the delayed second season was, sadly, a letdown.
I teach a visual studies class at the California College of the Arts and, in introducing students to stories told with visual panache, I wanted to show them a couple of episodes of The Returned (in previous years I’ve shown the whole season) but it actually never occurred to me this time around that I would be showing those episodes around Halloween. Part of that is because I don’t think of The Returned as a Halloween-perfect zombie series, nor should you (although just saying, “It’s a French zombie series” does kind of work if the implication is that the French are not going to do things as expected and their sense of style will come through, which of course it does). I was showing it to them because The Returned is visually stunning and a lot of elements we’re discussing about what makes a great series certainly apply here.
Anyway, keeping the attention of 19 college students has never been easy, but when that first episode started I made a point of observing the looks on their faces. They were riveted. Super curious, partly freaked out, very confused (after it ended) and wholeheartedly wanting to watch more of it. I knew then that maybe it was time for a Hidden Gems entry. And with each subsequent rewatching of these episodes — which are still utterly sensational even after seeing them no less than four times each — The Returned has validated that idea.
So here we are.
For starters, in my review from five years ago and in this reintroduction, I debated even using the word “zombie.” But that’s how it was pitched all those years ago, plus these are dead people who are coming back, they are very hungry when they return, and even though there’s barely a visual reference to zombies conceptually, there is one scene where that trope rises up and makes you think, yeah, this is definitely about zombies (which, because it’s so artfully and oddly done, you soon forget, precisely because the whole point of The Returned is to be an exercise in existentialism). I’ve never used the word “zombie” with my students and, after three episodes, there’s no real indication to them that The Returned is about that, so their state of imaginative contemplation is in high gear, as yours will be even though you’ve heard the “z” word already.
The Returned succeeds by upending all kinds of horror tropes while at the same time presenting the audience with something spooky and off: As the series begins, we are shown an incident from the recent past and then Gobert flashes forward to the present and very clearly lays out the direction of the series — a girl, presumed dead four years prior and looking exactly like when she died, is walking home. Like it didn’t happen. No blood or bruises, no Walking Dead-like clothing. Just a French girl, in a rural mountain town, walking back to her house: simple.
Never mind that the exceptionally eerie soundtrack from Mogwai gets you in an agitated state of anticipation — Gobert has other ideas. The early hook of this series is the reaction caused by the return of Camille (Yara Pilartz), the girl walking home. In the first of many beautifully played scenes, Camille’s mother, Claire (Anne Consigny), hears a rustle downstairs in her house and thinks it’s Lena (Jenna Thiam), her other daughter. Of course we know it’s not, since we’ve watched Camille walk all the way home. Consigny is terrific in her reaction, stepping slowly down the stairs, Camille blocked by the refrigerator door. As the door closes and Claire sees Camille casually eating — she apologizes for being late and otherwise has no idea what’s going on — Cosigny keeps it together. There’s fear, disbelief, relief, astonishment. It’s the first concrete indication that Gobert, and The Returned, will play things differently (if this were an American series, the mother would have screamed her lungs out in a high wail and the whole concept of the internal freak-out, and the beauty of the revelation, would be lost).
Similarly, what Camille doesn’t know, nor does the audience, is that her death caused a split between Claire and her husband, Jerome (the wonderfully expressive Frederic Pierott), Camille’s father. His anguish led to drinking, disillusionment, etc. Claire is now with Pierre (Jean-Francois Sivadier) a grief counselor and man who recently found religion. Claire calls Pierre first, but he’s in a group therapy session and doesn’t answer. She calls Jerome, who is in the session, but he takes the call and comes to see what Claire is talking about (he obviously thinks she’s grieving and confused). The scenes — plural — where Jerome sees his daughter alive are funny and heartbreaking, two things you’re not expecting in a series that has been ratcheting up the ominous.
That’s part of the early, pitch-perfect decision-making (plus writing, acting and directing) of The Returned. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen. When Pierre does arrive, he’s quietly thrilled at the miracle he sees before him. The scenes between Claire, Jerome and Pierre, all with believable and disparate reactions to Camille’s return, highlight the nuances that Gobert tiptoes through. The next reaction, quite different (for many reasons), comes when Lena arrives home. All of these revelations are exquisitely rendered. You know immediately that Gobert is doing something different and special.
And that’s just the first episode. The strength of The Returned is how Gobert weaves all the various stories of the people returning together. The complexity is impressive, the acting exceptional and even when later episodes suspend disbelief or miss in their ambitious reach, it doesn’t damage the overall story or impact.
Again, the casting here is perfect. It also helps that it’s French — all the predictable American melodrama is missing. As Gobert subverts tropes left and right, the cleverness of his approach magnifies. The setting, too, is essential. It has to be a small, rural town. The cinematography that makes the location thrive is, all these years later, still evocative.
The first episode also introduces viewers to Victor (Swann Nambotin), an adorable young boy who appears to be lost and is taken in by Julie (Celine Sallette). All you really need to know about Victor is that, despite being adorable, despite having one of the sweetest smiles you’ll ever see, he will creep you out in ways that are hard to describe, or shake. Victor ends up being my favorite characters (and while Nambotin grows up a bit for the second season, lessening the impact of adorable little Victor, it’s not his fault that the season never clicks — the magic just couldn’t be re-created).
The Returned is available to binge right now on Netflix. It’s a visual work of real beauty and a story — original, creative, demented, lovely — that you will largely fall for, despite its ultimate inability to grasp perfection. Watching the second season isn’t recommended, but discovering the utterly unique first one definitely is.
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