Originally released in 2004, The Returned (AKA Les revenants in its native French, AKA They Came Back) is finally being released on DVD to coincide with the TV adaptation, currently showing in the UK on Channel 4, which has been slowly creeping out and drawing in any audience who would consider its weirdness their cup of tea.
It’s perhaps unfair to compare the film to its small-screen counterpart, especially considering the film has around 100 minutes while the series has many hours, but the very fact that it’s being released just as the latter is compelling its viewers automatically invites comparison. The two of them have a similar concept though differ greatly in how they handle them. The basic idea is that the recently deceased, 65% of which are in their old age, suddenly and mysteriously return from the dead. How does their returning affect both the people around them and overall society that has moved on without them?
The film obviously must be given the credit over the show for having the idea first and indeed it is a gem of a concept. However, the film often leaves the idea short-changed as it focuses on underdeveloped character drama; there’s initially intriguing character stuff including an old man dealing with his long-time wife returning and how a couple react entirely differently to their young son suddenly being alive again but none of it is given enough time for us to truly get invested. There’s also a strange lack of shock and awe about what’s actually happened, the sudden rise of the dead far too easily accepted with much more of a focus on scenes of how the government handles the situation that while interesting at first eventually become repetitive.
This is a much more low-key, even downbeat affair than the show which has a far more primal and menacing way about it which makes it far more compelling. The film is more concerned with the practicalities of the dead returning and integrating with society – for instance whether or not they should be allowed to return to their old jobs – than with raising dramatic mysteries.
There’s a cold, distancing effect to the film that lacks dramatic tension however it’s not without its sense of creepiness. Director Robin Campillo (who went on to write and edit such films as The Class and Heading South) certainly has an eye for striking imagery and shot composition that lingers with you long after it has moved on to another scene. Take the opening shot for example which, without warning, appears on-screen showing a large group of people walking out of a cemetery. The camera stays on them as they make their way to a road in the centre of the town (shown above). There’s just something inherently unsettling about watching a large group of people walking or standing with seemingly no purpose and it’s a motif the director utilizes with skill.
It starts off clear and concise in a way that sits opposite to how the TV show has handled the concept – drumming up social commentary because of the way the government decides to deal with people that are evidently less suitable to being a part of society – but becomes more and more vague as it goes on. However, it comes across a lot of the time as just being unclear for the sake of it rather than compellingly raising questions that it might answer down the line. There’s a fine line between being intriguingly ambiguous and just being frustratingly vague and unfortunately the film falls more into the latter category than it does the former. It ends on a note that while consistent with its sense of eeriness is nonetheless unsatisfying.
If you were to recommend this film to someone you might be forced to describe it as some sort of modern take on the zombie genre but to call the returnees zombies would be to misrepresent both the concept and the intent of the film. This is drama tinged with an eerie sense of dread than it is a horror fest of Romero flesh-eating proportions. It’s just a shame that it never comes together as a dramatic whole, too often leaving things open but without feeling like it’s inviting interpretation. I hate to say it but just watch the TV show if you want to see something that takes this brilliant concept and runs with it.
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