The Very Fabric of Nature Is Torn in ‘The Returned (Les Revenants)’

The Returned asks a not-so-simple question about how the living would react to the return of the dead, and offers no easy answers.

The French television series The Returned (Les Revenants) is based on Robin Campillo’s 2004 film of the same name. It shouldn’t be confused with the upcoming American television series, Resurrection, based on Jason Mott’s 2013 book, The Returned. Even though each of these shares, on the face of it, a similar plot: the dead begin returning to a small town, only they’re not the lumbering zombies of horror films. They show up exactly as they were before they died, with no memory of anything since, and merely want to resume their lives.

Trouble is, living people generally don’t cotton to the dead coming back, and these resurrections wake up ancient secrets, guilt, and hatred.

Mott’s book and Campillo’s film both acknowledge a global scale: the dead, millions of them, reappear everywhere and simply overwhelm the “living” world’s ability to integrate them. It’s not an orchestrated invasion (as far as we know), but it might as well be for the way it changes the way society operates. Season One of Les Revenants adopts a different approach; there’s no mention of the dead returning anywhere other than the sleepy town in the French Alps where the story takes place, a location so remote that, despite modern technology, seems so cut off from the rest of the world that it might as well be Brigadoon.

Only a select few residents are initially even aware of the dead. In fact, the dead themselves aren’t aware of their newly-risen state at first, either. So when they show up at the doors of family and old lovers, only to be greeted with anger or fear, things get tense very quickly.

Each episode centers on a single returned character, exploring their lives before they died and the ripple effects caused by their resurrections. There’s younger sister Camille (Yara Pilart), jealous of her twin sister Lena (Jenna Thiam) — who in turn is consumed by a secret that she’d rather Camille not know). Simon (Pierre Perrier) died on the day he was to wed his pregnant fiancee Adele (Clotilde Hesme). Serge (Guillaume Gouix) resumes his activities from his life before, unaware of the role that his brother played in his death. Madame Costa (Laetitia de Fombelle), dead for 30 years, pops back into her husband’s life, while young Victor (Swann Nambotin) inserts himself into the life of a young woman unrelated to him in any way.

Victor is easily one of the show’s most compelling characters. Small and silent, with haunted eyes, he raises the bar for portrayals of creepy children. Like the others, he doesn’t remember his prior life (or afterlife), but he also seems to be more aware of the big picture than the other Returned. Real menace surrounds Victor.

With all of these pieces in place, the show unravels the intricate ways in which all of its characters are connected. Relationships have changed in the wake of the deaths, as have the people who have tried to cope with their loss in one way or another. The world has fundamentally changed for the Returned, as well. If that were all the show dealt with it, it would be compelling enough, but it also introduces a sense that there’s something larger, perhaps more threatening going on.

The Returned plays with this sense of supernatural dread in deft ways. It’s a quietly told story — so much so that its bursts of violence are doubly shocking because of how they break the story’s reverie. Initially, The Returned has a little fun with horror clichés: a character will see a dead person outside the window, through a mirror, and turn around, only to see the person gone, and chalk it up to imagination. Well, the deceased is gone only because he’s walking around the house to knock on the door.

However, these events also offer deeper symbolic moments — a pinned butterfly escaping its display case or a dead wolf wriggling from the taxidermist’s hook, receding lake levels that reveal a flooded town — that point to profound changes taking place. Sure, the dead are coming back, and that’s a pretty big deal, but the show also seems to imply that the very fabric of nature might be irreparably torn.

It’s disappointing that the DVD comes with no bonus features, since it would be interesting to hear some discussion of the show’s thoughtful, formal presentation, or perhaps how Mogwai came around to their haunting, minimalist theme. What we do have, though, is a sad and often tense show that promises to answer many questions in its second season, although you get the sense that knowledge and understanding will come with a high price.

RATING 8 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.