THE ONE WHERE A French girl who died in a coach crash four years ago returns home as if nothing ever happened. And she’s not the only one…
VERDICT Anyone who’s seen Robin Campilo’s 2004 sorta-zombies film Les Revenants – and not many people outside France have – will know that it’s a rather unlikely candidate for adaptation into a TV series. A poised arthouse effort, it tackles the topic of people returning from beyond the grave with remarkable restraint. And, well, the French just don’t do fantasy drama, do they?
Well, yes they do, and congratulations are in order to Channel Four for bringing this series to our shores. In the wake of The Walking Dead and BBC Three’s In The Flesh the bar has been set pretty high for undead dramas, but this opening instalment carefully unpacks a compellingly uncanny set-up, and does so with considerable artistry.
The approach is quite different from the original film, and it’s possible the two might end up sharing nothing more than a basic premise. In the film, millions of the dead suddenly come back to life, with crowds ambling out of a small town’s graveyard, creating a logistical headache for the local authorities. Here (so far at least), the numbers are much more limited, and the focus far more intimate, as the titular Camille casually wanders into her parents’ kitchen and starts making herself a sandwich.
The relative calm with which Camille’s mother reacts to this development is a little hard to swallow. She’s not the only one, either – not until Camille’s sister claps eyes on fairly late on does someone react to the sight of a dead girl walking with the hyperventilating panic that it deserves. But the underplaying of emotion is certainly consistent with the overall tone which, while less cold-blooded than the original film, is more measured than melodramatic.
The scriptwriting is pleasurably subtle, crediting the audience with the intelligence to work things out for themselves; we don’t need to have it hammered home that Camille’s parents have split up, or that old Mr Costa’s decades-dead wife has come back from the beyond, when the phrasing of a phone call or a glimpse of a framed photo will supply all the information we need.
With its subdued colour palette and painterly compositions, The Returned looks lovely too, even when it’s at its most shocking - not many series can aestheticise the sight of someone being stabbed to death in a subway, or a pensioner taking a dive off a dam. Scottish post-rockers Mogwai’s ominous throbs (which you can listen to on Spotify ), incidentally are the perfect accompaniment to all this picturesque gloom.
Most satisfying of all are the many mysteries added for this TV take. Does that shot of a butterfly smashing through a glass frame tell us something about the returnees’ capabilities (they clearly don’t need sleep; are they unusually strong too?) Who is that creepy little boy, and why did he (apparently deliberately) cause the coach crash? Do Camille and her twin have some sort of telepathic connection? And does the fact that the water level’s falling in the local reservoir have any connection to the returnees? (Transposed mass? Human beings are mostly made up of water…)
Fascinating questions all, and when a series is this well made it doesn’t matter too much if the answers trickle out slowly. Just as long as they don’t pull a Torchwood: Miracle Day on us and ultimately reveal that it’s all down to a massive vagina at the centre of the Earth.
POSTER APOCALYPSE Glimpsed on various walls: posters of The Exorcist (or L’Exorciste), Rumble Fish (released in France under the title Rusty James, it seems – fancy that!), Memento , Nirvana, and the Sonic Youth LP “Goo”. Lena and Julie both have impeccable taste!
FEATURED MUSIC Want to pretend you’re hanging out in a French bar? Then listen to “King Size” by Corleone , “Eye To Eye” by Golden Age Of Yachting , “Sunshine” by Steeple Remove , and “Breath” by Meridians .
IN THE ORIGINAL FILM (SPOILERS)… We’re never given a rational explanation for why the dead came back; in the end they simply return to their graves, lie down and fade away (it’s basically a big metaphor about letting go of grief). But with the TV incarnation differing in so many respects, it seems unlikely that events will play out in the same way.
Ian Berriman twitter.com/ianberriman
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