The return of the dead is our society’s current favorite nightmare: you need only see The Walking Dead, World War Z, the resurrection storyline of American Horror Story: Coven, or any of the numerous undead-based entertainments on TV and in the movies. It’s also one of humanity’s dearest dreams: many religions promise reunion with our departed loved ones in an afterlife or the bodily resurrection of the dead themselves.
Blessed dream or unholy nightmare? Miracle or curse? The haunting, creepy, and beautiful French series The Returned (Les Revenants), premiering on Sundance Halloween night, asks what it would be like if the dead returned, whole, alive, just as we knew them years ago. No moaning, no cravings for human flesh, just the mysterious reversal of the eternal rule of death, and a dreamlike uncertainty as to what’s happening, why, and how terrified we should be.
The story begins the day 14-year-old Camille (Yara Pilartz) dies. On a school trip away from their mountain village, the bus carrying her and her class crashes over a cliff. Four years later, Camille climbs up onto the highway and walks home. She remembers nothing of the crash, least of all having died. She doesn’t realize time has passed. She’s starving–not for brains, but for a sandwich. And her mother, Claire (Anne Cosigny), and father, Jérôme (Frédéric Pierrot)–whose marriage broke up amid their grief–are simultaneously overjoyed and horrified. Camille is back. She wants nothing except to go on with her life. What’s next?
What’s next is that more “returned” begin resurfacing in the village. Some are young, some old; some died a few years ago, some decades. Like Camille, they remember nothing of their deaths, only the lives they left behind. They’re not bloodthirsty or dangerous–well, not, anyway, unless they were in their lives before. Pas de problem, n’est-ce pas?
Big problem. For starters, while The Returned slept the Big Sleep, life went on. Their loved ones aged and died; lovers got married. There is not necessarily a place for them. Some of them end up housed in a shelter operated by Claire’s new lover, Pierre (Jean-François Sivadier), a social worker who believes the returning is a mystic blessing and a sign. But as word begins to leak out, tension grows–fear, of course, but also resentment (in parents whose dead children did not return), jealousy (in the policeman whose lover’s ten-years-dead fiance comes to reclaim her), and guilt and confusion (in Claire’s sister, who played hooky on the doomed bus trip). Oh, also: various characters are developing stigmata-like wounds, and the water level in a local dam is dropping, revealing a sunken town beneath.
So The Returned unfolds both as an oddly naturalistic supernatural tale and a disorientingly surreal character drama. In many ways, it’s less about zombies than the grieving process and the unsettling effects when it’s interrupted. (It’s also like an extended version of the dream, sometimes experienced among survivors, that their deceased loved ones have returned without explanation.) The “returned” are not monsters–in any immediately apparent way. They’re not even changed. They are the same people, their problems–hostility, depression, normal angst–amplified by the stress of, well, coming back from the dead. So Camille, for instance, comes back a teenager as she left–and teenager that she is, she deals with the stress and rejection her return creates by rebelling and acting out. In a later episode, she meets another returnee, and commiserates with him about returning to a world that’s moved on. “‘Love is stronger than death’?” she says. “What a load of bull.”
The Returned also an expertly suspenseful thriller–but one where part of the thrill is learning, only gradually, what kind of thriller it is. The Returned’s refusal to explain the resurrections adds to the disorienting feeling that one is walking through a dream. A story like The Walking Dead, say, spells out its premise quickly and plainly: because of a virus, people die and come back to life, their reptilian brains driving them to crave flesh. That’s the situation; let the head-smashing begin!
In The Returned, it’s not clear where the dead have come back from, why, or how. It’s not even entirely apparent what they are, physically or linguistically. Are they zombies? We don’t see anyone rise physically from the grave; the “returned” seem flesh-and-blood like zombies, but the original title–Les Revenants–could imply “ghosts.” (Apologies in advance for my junior-high French, but the English “revenant” can also mean a ghost or an animated corpse.)
And this lack of answers proves as horrifying as any gorefest. The Returned has already aired in France, the UK, and elsewhere (a second season is coming next year) and in early coverage I’ve seen comparisons to Twin Peaks. That’s fair to an extent, but The Returned doesn’t have the absurd humor, elliptical Easter eggs, or gothic fantasy of Twin Peaks.
Instead it’s moody and emotional, a real world nudged just a few degrees surreal, and it’s grounded by some excellent, plausible performances. Pilartz is particularly terrific as a confused teen, bearing the weight of figuring out life and afterlife at the same time; Cosigny and Pierrot are just two of the other actors who convincingly convey the joy/horror of their most private wish coming true. The Returned is engrossing and entertaining, but it feels less supernatural than spiritual, less postapocalyptic than preapocalyptic, as its characters try to wrestle with the possibility that they are living in the End Times. (There are, incidentally, a surprising proportion of deeply religious characters here for a story set in France.)
I watched the entire eight-episode season of The Returned around the same time that I watched the six episodes of Time of Death, Showtime’s documentary series about the terminally ill and their families. And while it may sound glib to say, the two shows turned out to be fascinating companion pieces. The Returned is a ripping spooky tale whose horror builds over eight episodes. But at heart it’s about how death, while awful, is also a baseline fact of life. It gives meaning to the time we have; its revocation isn’t just physically but existentially frightening. It’s terrible, The Returned tells us, to say goodbye. But it’s terrifying when au revoir turns into à bientôt.