Aaron Yap watches Fabrice Gobert’s The Returned, a moody French supernatural series where the dead come to life in a quiet alpine town.
In Val Lewton’s 1943 film I Walked with a Zombie, there’s a terrific exchange between its protagonists, Betsy (Frances Dee), a nurse travelling to Saint Sebastian, and Paul (Tom Conway), a plantation owner whose wife she’s been hired to care for. On the journey there, she remarks about how the beautiful the ocean is. Paul rebuffs her observation with a cynical response, heavy with portent. “That luminous water…,” he says, “it takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies. The glitter of putrescence. There’s no beauty here, only death and decay.”
This line encapsulates the morbid poetry of producer Lewton’s run of horror pictures for low-budget studio RKO in the ‘40s, but also springs vividly to mind when watching The Returned, a moody, gorgeously enigmatic supernatural series about the dead coming back to life in an unnamed, picturesque French alpine town. Unlike Paul, showrunner Fabrice Gobert, who wrote and directed a lion’s share of the first season, recognises that there is a specific kind of beauty in death.
Butterflies bursting out of glass display cases. Carcasses of mountain goats suspended under water like a Damien Hirst installation. Creepily placid Gregory Crewdson-esque housing estates. The Returned’s starkly elegant images serve to heighten an unsettling atmosphere that’s caught somewhere between waking dream and nightmare reality.
Gobert has used Robin Companillo’s 2004 zombie flick They Came Back as his source of inspiration. The underrated film offered a grounded, matter-of-fact scenario that emphasised procedural aspects over genre thrills, setting it apart from traditional gut-munching splatter-fests of the Romero/Jackson/Fulci variety. In place of innards spilling forth, we get numerous scenes of town hall-type meetings where city officials sit around to discuss quarantining, research findings, reintegration processes and zombie rights – all with a solemnly straight face. Sometime it feels like you’ve dropped into a documentary about the WHO trying to contain a global Ebola outbreak.
Gobert adopts the film’s slow-burning tone and narrow focus, but his primary interest is in the emotional possibilities of the story, particularly in the varied ways in which characters interact when they’ve discovered their deceased loved ones have returned. This character-based, grief-driven tact essentially makes The Returned another variant of W.W. Jacob’s 1902 short story “The Monkey’s Paw”, but also a rather interesting mirror flip to people-vanishing existentialist quandaries found in The Leftovers.
There are structural similarities to Lost too: the narrative is spread across multiple timelines, fleshed out with character backstories, and peppered with unanswered mysteries. The threat of another wheel-spinning Lost-ian rabbit hole is certainly present, but there’s a clearer sense of purpose and intent in the first season’s tight eight-episode arc that Lost didn’t have.
Like The Leftovers, the mysteries of The Returned are inextricably woven into the discombobulating texture of the show – we’re made to feel, not demand answers. The characters are always placed at the forefront, but that’s not to say there aren’t minor cerebral pleasures to be had for those who like seeing puzzle pieces coming together.
Each episode pivots around a key character – “Lucy”, “Victor”, “Julie”, etc. Rewatching the show a second time, I still found myself invested in their predicaments – as would anyone who’s ever experienced a dearly departed one appearing in their dreams like an all-too-real, almost tangible spectre.
The most uncanny and poignant thread follows Camille Séguret (Yara Pilartz), a flame-locked teenager whose return after dying in a bus accident four years ago rattles her family to the core. Her parents, now separated, are faced with a Pandora’s Box of thorny psychological and personal dilemmas. Do they hide her from society? Or continue where things left? What if she dies again? Is she real?
It’s even stranger for Camille’s twin sister Lena (Jenna Thiam), who also must come to terms with the fact that Camille hasn’t aged a day since her death, hence is no longer identical. Gobert and his writers aren’t above a few horror tropes – there’s a weird kid with psychic visions and a grisly serial killer subplot – but it’s in their interrogations of fragile familial bonds that they find true horror.
The allure of The Returned is intensified immeasurably by its location and music. The snow-capped, mist-shrouded Haute Savoie Alps is a prominent character in itself, its ominous topographic grandeur providing an ideal backdrop for characters tormented by events too big for them to comprehend or control. Mogwai’s haunting score, with its shimmering piano, droning synths, and surging bass-throbs, communicates a sustained tone of mournful yearning and quivering unease. The effect is almost druggy, like being stuck in a cocoon.
Much like Twin Peaks, The Returned takes place in a world filled with utmost dread – but one you never want to leave.
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