The Returned (Les revenants)
France (2004) Dir. Robin Campillo
Out of the blue a horde of people of all ages return to their small home town after having been dead for ten years, looking exactly as they were when they died. Nobody knows how or why they were able to be resurrected but the biggest struggle for the loved ones of the returned is adjusting to having them back into their lives. But their general integration back into society and the secret night time meetings will have far greater consequences than anyone could imagine.
Originally known as They Came Back in some English-speaking territories this 2004 film has been released on the back of the success of the TV series it inspired, The Returned, recently shown here in the UK on Channel 4. However they are both very different beasts and thus any attempt to make comparisons between the two would be spurious at best. Aside from the basic concept of the dead mysteriously rising again, any similarities, be they general or subtle, remain distant. Robin Campillo’s film is more of a sociological existentialist essay that ask whether the dead should stay dead and if they do return, can we let them “live” again as they did before, while the TV series relied on creating a drama out of the integration aspect of the returned.
The film opens with the returned slowly ambling into the town all clean, well groomed albeit somewhat catatonic in expression, making their way back to the places they once called home. Quickly the authorities gather them up for medical tests, turning a local centre into a makeshift hospice-cum-hospital. Despite initial shock and obvious reservations some of the families are more than happy to welcome their loved ones back with open arms, subject to certain conditions. This film focuses on three relationships affected by these sudden reappearances.
Rachel (Géraldine Pailhas) is one of the more reticent to accept that her lover Mathieu (Jonathan Zaccaï) is back in her life yet she succumbs to her feelings despite some nagging doubts remaining ever present in her mind. These are compounded by the presence of Gardet (Frédéric Pierrot), the doctor who examined Mathieu upon his return, who appears to have a crush on Rachel, as illustrated by the borderline voyeuristic interest he takes in her life with Mathieu. Elsewhere a senior citizen (Victor Garrivier) is struggling to deal with the change in his resurrected wife Martha (Catherine Samie), while a similar tricky period of re-adjustment befalls parents Isham (Djemel Barek) and Véronique (Marie Matheron) as they welcome their six year-old Sylvain (Saady Delas), whose distant and erratic behaviour is a constant cause for concern.
Where the TV series has a huge advantage over this film is time. 100 minutes isn’t quite enough to explore the themes this story intends to and is hampered by Campillo’s insistence on a slow and ponderous pace that favours mood and atmosphere over depth and development. This is by no means a vacuous outing but it is not as profound as it aspires to be but what it does achieve is turning the zombie movie on its head and proving that an intelligent story can come from it that doesn’t involve flesh eating or other conventions typical of the genre. A refreshing and thought provoking change that is to be embraced and judging by the success of the show on Ch4, people have already done so.
A shared approach between film and TV series is the use of silence to create an eerie atmosphere replacing the incoherent groans and jump scares we are used to in films concerning the undead. However, Campillo seemed to have forgotten to add that sudden unnerving punctuation to take the story to the next stage. Instead it ambles along as slowly as the rejuvenated townsfolk do while out walking, with regular interruptions of the scientific bods trying to make sense of this development. The final act is pretty conclusive but the lack of any suspenseful build to set up for it makes for an unexpected denouement that feels rushed and tacked on in lieu of the time limitations spoken of above. It is certainly an emotionally poignant ending but again, the lack of attachment to the characters stops it short of being a deeply effective moment.
The bulk of the film is carried by Géraldine Pailhas as Rachel, who rarely smiles but has a great presence on screen, taking her character on the greatest journey from being lost without Mathieu to uncertain by his return and the ensuing tumult of wondering where they go next when his behaviour, along with Gardet’s interception, puts a question mark over their relationship. A key powerful scene is when the reunited couple make love for the first time; Pailhas’s uncertain hesitance is beautifully essayed here, crystallising the apprehension of the community welcoming the deceased back into their lives. In the TV series young Swann Nambotin as the wide eyed looking one – here that honour falls to Jonathan Zaccaï, with his crystal blue eyes and otherworldly stare he is perfectly unsettling in her role both physically and emotionally.
It may be churlish to say this but for this reviewer, the TV series is the more preferable and successful vehicle for exploring the fascinating and unique ideas behind its premise. However this film version of The Returned shouldn’t be dismissed. It is an unquestionably dour outing that may have ideas above its station, yet is an equally eerie and sinister experience, serving well as a valid companion piece to the TV version.