The success of the recent eight-part French television drama series “Les Revenants”, aired by Canal Plus, has prompted a UK DVD release for the 2004 film, from director and screenwriter Robin Campillo, which inspired it, now re-united (for tie-in and marketing purposes) with the English translation of its original French release title, although it had previously been christened with the moniker “They Came Back” for English speaking territories. Both the compelling TV series which followed and this strange and insidious feature-length alternative are founded on the same unsettling premise: what might be the outcome if the dead mysteriously and inexplicably returned to life, but instead of being the shambling flesh-eating ghouls of modern horror they continued to appear much as they were in their former lives? Both film and TV versions maintain a slow paced, quietly sombre ambiance and an atmosphere of existential dread and unease pervades them. Otherwise they contain very little crossover in content or approach: the TV series opts for dark Lynchian surrealism and a plethora of intricate “LOST”-like narrative mysteries surrounding the main ‘returned’ characters, but developments are layered across many episodes and coupled with the muted visual palette of contemporary Nordic Noir crime dramas such as the Danish series “The Killing”. Campillo’s film is less obviously rooted in the visual tropes of the horror or mystery genres, opting for an un-showy naturalistic mise-en-scene in which the after effects of the narrative’s uncanny and unfathomable opening events are treated as concrete medical, social and political problems requiring a series of hard decisions be thought about and taken by the municipal ‘experts’ charged with attempting to deal with this unusual phenomenon.
In the series, only a handful of characters living in the small Alpine village setting appear to be affected, at least at first, and it concentrates on individual storylines wit connections between the different characters gradually being forged. In this version, 70 million people who’ve died within the last ten years suddenly return from the dead en mass during the course of a two hour period, after which the phenomenon stops as inexplicably as it had first begun. The film deals only with a handful of occupants from one small affected French town, but looks at the idea from a less intimate vantage point: 13,000 dead have now returned and need to be housed, reunited with their loved ones and re-integrated into a society which no longer has a proper place for them.
Thus the approach of the TV series and film are very different, with the TV series being much more character-based, brooding, edgy and low-key; whereas the film is concerned with depicting a community and a society-at-large attempting in practical terms to deal with a supernatural event that defies rational explanation, but which clearly has inescapably material consequences, both at the wider societal level and individually for those who have to deal with the reappearance of their deceased family members. e
This then, is a variation on the traditional Romero-esque zombie-drama-as-contemporary-allegory, but with the gory splatter and explicit horror elements entirely removed and replaced by a troubling, dreamlike atmosphere of creeping disquietude that will either captivate or bore rigid depending on the viewer’s tolerance for arty French existential ennui. While flesh eating zombies once ruled the genre, this more cerebral and left-field approach appears to be a new variation which has found increasing favour with filmmakers and authors in recent years. Dominic Mitchell’s BBC series “In the Flesh” from earlier this year, Pedro Almodóvar’s 2006 film “Volver”, and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel “Handling the Dead” being several recent examples of artists using the re-animated dead trope to tackle more culturally based philosophical ideas surrounding the process of grieving and our contemporary attitudes to mortality. Other similar treatments of the zombie genre are in the pipeline, including Paul Abbot’s British remake of the French TV series. In this case, though, Campillo and co-screenwriter Brigitte Tijou attempt to fuse all sorts of modern day fears and concerns in their downbeat treatment of the subject: the status of immigrants and refugees in modern states, pharmaceutical intervention in social problems, surveillance culture and terrorism are all linked together by the theme, although whether it all really connects up entirely convincingly is a point open to debate.
“The Returned” begins with striking, eerily haunting imagery of hundreds of the dead filing out of the main cemetery gates of a small town, drifting like silent sleepwalkers through its empty streets. Like most of the film, this all takes place in the open, in unambiguous sunny daytime, eschewing any mysteriousness or secrecy in the scenario and forcing both the viewer and the occupants of the town to accept the impossible. This scene is inter-cut with a meeting that’s being held in the town hall, chaired by the elderly Mayor (Victor Garrivier), as various experts comment on the phenomenon. It’s a similar approach to that which is taken at the start of Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”, in which chaotic scenes inside a TV studio are used to fill in the background to the current crisis in the form of interviews with expert commentators inter-cut with vignettes from the streets as the city is being overrun by the flesh-eating dead. Here the atmosphere is more sedate and the returned dead are not blue-skinned rotting cadavers hungry for brains and blood, but instead look exactly the same as they did in life: even though some of them died up to ten years previously, they file out of the cemetery looking immaculately clean and perfectly healthy.
At first the administrative personnel concentrate in their briefing on how the authorities have thus far dealt with the initial problem by commandeering community centres and business warehouses as impromptu camps to house the returning dead, run by The Red Cross and maintained by the army. The returnees are judged to have the right to resume their former lives but this poses various problems, and the film follows the fortunes of several people involved in overseeing the town’s attempt to respond humanly to the situation, by concentrating on their very different personal experiences of being reunited with their own dead loved ones: the Mayor’s wife Martha (Catherine Samie) is welcomed home once more, while his chief assistant Isham (Djemel Barek) and wife Véronique (Marie Matheron) are tentatively reunited with their deceased young son Sylvain (Saady Delas). Government health official Rachel (Géraldine Pailhas) is more ambivalent about accepting her town planner husband Mathieu (Jonathan Zaccaï) back into their home, after he returns from having perished in a car accident two years previously.
What soon becomes apparent is that the returnees are not exactly as they were before they died, despite looking exactly the same. Their physiology is different (their body temperature is five degrees lower than a living human being), they rarely sleep and prefer to wander around silently in gaggles of their own kind at night, some of them apparently meeting up in Mathieu’s office for nocturnal gatherings of their own around the planning desk of this local Government building.
It is also revealed that they also suffer from a debilitating form of aphasia which makes it almost impossible for them to retain new memories. The crux of the film revolves around the strange, new, but indefinable sensibility the newly returned seem to display towards their loved ones and their surroundings: Mathieu has to be moved from white collar planning work to a menial factory job because of his inability to focus his mind, continuously fixated on a minor tiff between himself and Rachel which occurred on the day of his death two years before; Martha remains detached and uninterested in the plans her husband and their relatives make to welcome her home; while Sylvain seems eager to escape from his parents’ flat, spending hours hammering at the door of their apartment at night. Meanwhile, the authorities develop a drug that can force the returnees to sleep, and they send hundreds of weather balloons into the night sky with thermal imaging cameras attached, as part of an attempt to make an anthropological record of their movements at night in order to better understand what almost comes to be viewed as a new species.
“The Returned” is a languidly paced and evenly keeled piece of work, which manages to stimulate one’s interest early on with a suggestive, provocative atmosphere and a brooding, dreamlike ambient score by Martin Wheeler which helps evoke the memory of Jean Rollin’s modern French urban zombie thriller, “Night of the Hunted” (“La nuit des traquées”, 1980). And yet it never quite manages to build the same levels of tragic, alienated poeticism as were contained in Rollin’s masterpiece, despite it being a welcome attempt to revive the once moribund French fantastique tradition. Ultimately, co-producer Caroline Benjo seems to have been luckier with the TV version of the same idea, which successfully retains the oblique strangeness of the original as well as its sense of the uncanny being encompassed by the experience and surroundings of a mundane reality, while adding engaging and mysterious narrative strands which help to keep one engaged week after week.
In contrast, Campillo struggles to maintain the initial sense of intrigue he evokes despite attempts to hint at a sinister agenda being shared by the returnees. A subplot involving the only actor to feature heavily in both movie and TV series, Frédéric Pierrot -- who here plays a Doctor who develops something of an obsession with Rachel while treating her returned husband -- never seems to reach a satisfactory conclusion, and, while the ambiguous ending is fully in keeping with this sort of low key arthouse fare, “The Returned” never really feels like a coherent point is actually being made by its specific use of the zombie allegory, despite allusions to a plethora of modern concerns.
It succeeds intermittently in specific scenes, and is interesting enough to be worth a watch; but this is a film that is now more of interest for being what will probably come be seen as a dry run – flawed but worthy -- for the excellent series that followed it, rather than a fully realised piece of work in its own right. It’s interesting to compare the two approaches and to see where the TV version succeeds and this attempt struggles: primarily, the TV series allows at least some of the returned dead to retain their original personalities, giving them more scope and interest than the rather dull and one dimensional dead people seen here, and it manages to retain its metaphorical allusions during its various mysterious scenarios without letting them overshadow all else.
This timely DVD from Arrow Films doesn’t feature any extras, but it arrives in the UK only a few weeks before the first series of the TV version also hits the shelves -- which makes it an ideal compare-and-contrast partner for its more developed successor.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!