Saturday, March 29, 2014

THE RETURNED: Learn why these zombies are worth more than all the others put together....

All the others, that is, except for the returned dead in Robin Campillo's ground-breaking 2004 film, Les revenants (called They Came Back in its international English title), and now returning again, under the same French name, Les Revenants, in the often stunning, if eventually flawed French TV series, THE RETURNED, which first appeared on our Sundance Channel and is now available, commercial-free, via Netflix streaming.

Though I can never thank George A. Romero enough for his earlier and equally ground-breaking zombie movie Night of the Living Dead, I must also admit that Romero's film has spawned far, far too many second-, third- and fourth-rate imitations. M. Campillo's zombie film, however, and the series inspired by it (the movie-makers thank Campillo with an upfront credit in each episode), are something else.

Why? Because, ladies and gentlemen, theses zombies don't find it necessary to feast on the flesh of the living. Which -- unless you are a mostly mindless cretin -- is only exciting/fun/funny/appalling the first few times around. No, these "returned" just want to somehow fit back into life as they knew it and as it is still going on. In Campillo's original film, which is much more politically (economically, socially, historically) savvy than the new TV series, the returned dead want their jobs back for starters. Can you imagine what this might to do an already shaky economy?

Note to young zombie fans, particularly those who claim Campillo's movie was not a zombie film: the word zombie means an animated corpse or "walking dead." There is nothing in the original definition that mentions flesh-eating ghoul. Know your film history, kids, for Christ sake: There were/are famous and popular zombie movies that date prior to Romero's gift to the genre (I Walked With a Zombie, is one such). These were much quieter films, with none of the blood and gore our George bestowed on the species, and The Returned  -- despite one of its undead being a serial killer -- harks back to those quieter zombies.

As directed by Fabrice Gobert (at left, above, who wrote a number of the episodes) and Frédéric Mermoud (above, right, who earlier directed and co-wrote the excellent French film, Complices), the series builds on the set-up given us by Campillo. And it does a sterling job of making its zombies utterly human in their needs and appetites, never more so than in their longing for some of that tasty French food.

Some critics have made much of The Returned's "atmosphere," as though this accounted for its success. What I suspect they mean by atmosphere is rather the many striking details that the series builds on: from the butter-fly collection (above), in which one of those winged creatures suddenly reanimates, to the special knock that one sister uses to alert the other that she is there, to the fact that the code to enter a particular building has changed in the time since the "corpse" last used it as a living person.

All this is beautifully imagined with gravity and grace, and it goes a long way toward sucking us into the story of a quiet French mountain town (built beside a damn and a lake that now covers an older village), in which the dead slowly begin to return. The series sports an impeccable sense of place: the cold, crisp air of this ever-so-slightly strange Alpine village.

The cast is first-rate, as well -- from well-known actors such as Anne Consigny, Frédéric Pierrot, Clothilde Hesme (two photos above), Pierre Perrier and Samir Guesmi to some newer faces like Jenna Thiam (above) and Yara Pilartz (of 17 Girls). The first season is made up of eight episodes lasting around seven hours total, which makes it about four times longer than Campillo's original film. (A second season has now been ordered.)

While this gives us much more time to engage in the plot, as well as the whys and hows of the returning, instead of dealing with the whole picture -- economics, psychology, history, sociology -- the series tends to stick to love stories, of the living for the dead, whether it be boyfriend, daughter, wife or whoever.

This focus on love and loss to the exception of all else lessens the series somewhat, making it finally a more standard thing. (The ending, in fact, rests upon one of the most clichéd notions of the sci-fi/fantasy genre.) It does however, and to its credit, deal with religion as a force for faith -- and control.

As ever, the set-up is much more fascinating that the somewhat meager explanation we get for what has happened and why. But there will be more set-up -- along with more explanation -- to come next season, no doubt.

Meanwhile, enjoy the quiet, the atmosphere, and above all those telling details in this gorgeously appointed series -- another gift from Music Box Films -- that you can stream now on Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and perhaps elsewhere, too.

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