Wednesday, 4 October 2017

October Nightmares III #4: Les Revenants (The Returned) (2012-2015) - Didn't Keep the Receipt


Throughout this blog's illustrious eight year history, I feel as though I have covered every kind of zombie imaginable. I've done traditional rotter zombies, voodoo zombies, Japanese peasant-ghost zombies, re-animated corpses, vampire-zombies, parasite zombies, fast zombies, Rob Zombies (not really), and Zombie Strippers (yes really).

Well now I have another type of zombie to add to my list: French zombies. Oh là là.

Perhaps I'm being deliberately waggish in my desire to peg Les Revenants - or The Returned for the non-cheese eating surrender monkey parts of the world - as a series about zombies. There's certainly that aspect to The Returned; a series which revolves around a small French mountain town forced to cope with the sudden return of their lost loved ones. Like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, this town's seeing dead people.

But The Returned never fully answers the lingering question of the dead people's status. Are they zombies? Ghosts? Demons? Angels? Or just arsers-abouters? That last one is closest to the truth, but the show will nevertheless attempt to convince you otherwise.


The Returned functions as the antithesis to The Leftovers, a series about all the human drama caused by a religious-led seismic shift in the balance of human life. By which I mean God essentially says "screw you guys, I'm taking all my anti-abortionists homes" and whisks away half of humanity. The Returned takes the nihilistic option of bringing people back from the nether. Of the two scenarios, that's the worst one. Humans romanticise the dead; knowing full well that someone is never coming back we are able to glance over all their negative aspects, and appreciate only the good. Your dead partner coming back from the dead and trying to reinsert themselves into your life is only going to open old wounds: like reminding you they leave pubes all over the bathroom floor and clip their toe nails in bed.

This upset to the status quo forms the central thrust of The Returned, and is the reason for why I made the arsing about comment. When the four main Returned - fifteen-year-old Camille (Yara Pilartz), eight-year-old Victor (Swann Nambotin), Simon (Pierre Perrier), and Serge (Guillaume Gouix) - first reappear after their supposed deaths, there's an air of mystery about them and suggestion of all manner of hidden agendas. An intrigue which is quickly laden down by diversions and sub-plots.

Similar shows which come to mind are Twin Peaks and Lost. Twin Peaks for the surreal, morose atmosphere, and Lost for the contrived mysteries which increasingly resemble one of your granddad's rambling stories. The Returned does have a more consistently maudlin atmosphere than Twin Peaks, however. An atmosphere that partly owes to the distortion heavy dark-ambient/alt-rock soundtrack by Scottish band Mogwai. The rest is down to the quaint French town itself. It's dank, gloomy, and foggy - seemingly normal on the surface yet replete with killers hiding in plain sight, a dwindling reservoir filled with dead animals, mysterious power outages, and a skinrot plague. Essentially it's Silent Hill with more tourism and less murderous trigonometry.

Is The Returned a horror series? Or is it French drama with a supernatural salad dressing? Well it's definitely French there's no getting around that fact. There's a waitress with the latent ability to commune with spirits, but only when she's fucking. And she helps Camille's dad out of his grief by nailing him and claiming she's in contact with Camille. Christ. I hope my dad never thinks about me when he's up to his nuts.

But this is definitely horror. Perhaps a more thoughtful horror, but still horror nonetheless. The so-called French zombies are driven not by the desire to eat the brains or flesh of the living, but by primitive human emotions. Which isn't to say there are no overtly disturbing moments. The final episode of season one is pure traditional zombie apocalypse fare, with abandoned streets, decay, desolation, and a roaming horde of the 'undead'. There's also a deliberate homage to Night of the Living Dead in season two, involving a girl in a basement.

Strip away the surreal atmosphere and apocalyptic trappings, however, and you're left with a show which deals with the worst monsters of all: humans. And not just any humans, but humans permanently hurt by love and grief. It is at the very centre of these most human of emotions that The Returned stakes its terrifying existential questions. Simon is consumed by violent envy because his wife had the gall to move on in the ten years since his death. Camille is resentful at forever being forced to remain a teenager whilst her twin sister has matured. And Victor, well he's just a sinister bastard with a creepy stare that resembles Jimmy Savile at school pantomime.

It's just a shame that an elaborate two season mystery essentially hinges around Victor being the nice version of that evil telepathic kid from The Twilight Zone



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