Tv reviews! Something different now. Les Revenants (The Returned) is a French supernatural TV series that is one of my favourite series of all time. Here are my thoughts.
Never since Lost has a show left me feeling so confused or with so many questions, although thankfully, the Returned has yet to include a smoke monster, an island that travels through time or hostile natives. Set in the Alpine town of Annecy in South-Eastern France, Les Revenants or the Returned, focuses on a group of people who return from the dead. Unaware of their recent demises, the show concentrates on their attempts to reintegrate themselves into their old lives. Far from your traditional zombie show, the Returned is a poignant, challenging and enjoyable journey exploring the inner-most workings of human loss. I have just finished watching the second season and to help my understanding of it, I have decided to rewatch the show from the beginning and review it.
Featuring a large cast and plenty of narratives, the Returned is complicated from the beginning. Each episode is driven by a particular character with other character-driven narratives converging around the main storyline. The eponymous character in this episode is Camille (Yana Pillartz) who is a fifteen year old school girl whose school coach mysteriously drives off a mountain road killing all on board. Camille wakes up with no memory of the event and returns home to find that her parents Claire and Jerome have separated and Claire is now seeing the morally ambiguous religious man Pierre who runs a homeless shelter called the Helping Hand. Camille has also left behind her identical twin sister Lena (Jenna Thiam) who has grown four years older without her. Lena spends all her time drinking in the Lake Pub where she meets Simon Delaitre (Pierre Perrier)
Like Camille, Simon has no memory of his death and spends the episode trying to return home to his fiancee Adele and his daughter Chloe. Simon first starts looking for them at Adele’s old residence where a hospice nurse called Julie now lives. Julie is a fairly young nurse who leads a dull and unexciting life. This all changes when a boy named Victor comes to visit her. Next to nothing is revealed about Victor who quite literally appears from out of the darkness and attaches himself to Julie with little explanation. Julie cares for an elderly man called Mr De Costa who is visited by his wife who has been dead for thirty five years. The last narrative revolves around the characters of Toni and Lucy. Toni is the landlord of the Lake Pub and Lucy is one of his barmaids. Other than performing sexual favours for men like Jerome, Lucy is also brutally attacked in an underpass on her way home from work. Annecy is also heavily reliant on the Lake Annecy and dam that surrounds their little town and worry is caused when it is discovered that the level of the water is dropping.
Whilst this sheer amount of storylines and characters makes the Returned challenging and difficult to follow at times, this is also one of its strongest points. It doesn’t claim to make things easy for the viewer and expects them to work to piece together everything that’s going on. It doesn’t just tell the audience what they want to know, but instead drops little hints and clues. To trust their audiences to do this shows the faith that the showmakers have in their viewers and I think it’s a great way to engage the audience.
Camille’s narrative frames the episode. We see her return home and continue life as if she had never have died. She showers and eats as usual, completely unaware of her recent demise. By showing Camille’s school coach drive off the mountainside, the episode starts explosively. This was a shocking image, but a gripping one. The great writing of Camille’s storyline pushes the episode forward. We are shown powerful and evocative reactions to death and loss. Claire and Jerome are stunned into silence to see their daughter return, whilst Lena breaks down in a fit of terror upon seeing her sister seemingly alive again. This was harrowing to watch, but I did find it a little strange that Camille seeing her sister break down in front of her then broke down as well, but hell, what do I know about coming back from the dead?
However, whilst Camille’s narrative is strong and forceful, it is the other characters and storylines that make this episode a great start to the series. One narrative that has since become my favourite is the Julie/Victor one, despite how they are only minor characters in this episode. Victor is without doubt the creepiest character of the show, but also one of the most endearing ones. Without explanation, he follows Julie home one night from checking up on Mr De Costa and then invites himself into her apartment all without saying a word. It is here that we see the beginnings of their relationship that I have grown to love so much. Julie is initially wary and quizzical of Victor, but she springs to his defence, when her nosy neighbour begins poking her beak in, going so far as to saying his name is Victor, which he unquestionably accepts, and saying that he is a relative of hers. Whilst Julie is confronting her neighbour, Victor silently takes her hand. After the neighbour is fended off, Julie repeatedly threatens to calls the police, but eventually decides against this. It is these two subtle moments that depict what this show does best: character relationships.
It is interesting that none of the Returnees are welcomed with open arms. Lena breaks down upon seeing Camille again and Adele is more terrified than happy at Simon’s return. Mr De Costa is so unable to cope with his wife’s return that he ties her up, burns down the house and then commits suicide by jumping from the Dam, thus begging the question that once you’ve returned, can you die again, but it is how the Returned engages with this type of emotion that makes it so great to watch. It is perfectly logical that once you’ve made peace with someone’s death, it would be unsettling and upsetting to see them again, as if they had never died. This is what separates the Returned from shows like the Walking Dead. Camille, Victor, Simon and Mrs De Costa are not zombies with an appetite for human flesh, but regular people who want nothing more than to return to the lives, they were never aware that they had left. As much as I love the Walking Dead, the Returned is just a breath of fresh air amongst this onslaught of zombies that is currently dominating popular culture.
As can be expected, this episode is mainly set-up of the rest of the series. It introduces the major characters and narratives. Kudos is also owed to the music and location. As it is set in a mountain-town, the background scenery is unsurprisingly gorgeous and speaks volumes for the small town of Annecy. It is highly isolated yet close-kn it community, where everyone knows each other. Lena is able to help Simon find Adele, as Adele once tutored her. Julie is Mr De Costa’s care nurse. What affects one member of the community affects it all. It is this sense of togetherness and family that makes the Returned great to watch.
The music and sound is also great. Scottish band Mogwai perform the theme tune, which is eerie, atmospheric and sets a strong precedent for the rest of the music. Whilst the Returned isn’t explicitly a horror show, it is rooted in the supernatural and is certainly unnerving at times, especially in almost every scene involving Victor. In every possible way, the music serves to enhance the tense and fearful atmosphere.
The most frustrating thing about the Returned is how ti leaves everything so damn mysterious. Whilst we know that Camille, Victor, Simon and Mrs De Costa have returned, we don’t know how and we don’t know why. We don’t know whether they have returned for good and we don’t know how Simon, Mrs De Costa and Victor have died. In fact, we know next to nothing about Victor, especially why or how he’s so inexplicably drawn to Julie. Whilst sitting up all of these unanswered questions is a great way of keeping the audience hooked, it is also incredibly exasperating for the audience. I want to know why Adele is so terrified at Simon’s return. I want to know how Mrs De Costa died and most of all, I want to know why Victor appears in the middle of the exact road that Camille’s school bus is driving on, causing it to veer off the mountainside killing all on board.
All in all, this was great start to the series. It was paced well with moments of action that punctuates more character-based scenes. The music and location is great and the characters are well-realised. I found the Returned to e fresh, intriguing and original and I am keen to watch more. If only it wasn’t so damn mysterious, but hey, maybe some of these questions will be answered in the next episode. Ha! Fat chance!