It’s impossible to ignore the increase in exceedingly good television series outside the USA/UK/Canada axis over the past few years. There’s the well-known Danish gem Forbrydelsen, the original version of The Killing, as well as Bron/Broen, a Danish-Swedish joint venture, precursor to The Bridge. Award-winning Homeland is an adaptation of Hatufim, an Israeli television series; another two remarkable productions have Israeli roots – In Treatment, whose first season is heavily based in BeTipul, and Hostages, based on the Israeli series of the same name. From South America, it’s worth highlighting Argentinian crime drama Mujeres Asesinas, adapted in the USA as Killer Women.
Besides these, acclaimed French series Les Revenants has proved successful among audiences and critics. It was aired in several countries – including UK’s Channel 4, as The Returned in French with English subtitles, making it their first fully subtitled drama in over 20 years. Having won an International Emmy Award for Best Drama Series in 2013, it was adapted as The Returned in the USA, which premiered in March 2015; despite generally positive reviews, it was cancelled after one season with no finale.
Les Revenants debuted in November 2012 in Canal+, a French premium television channel. Created by Fabrice Gobert, this supernatural drama is an adaptation of the 2004 French film of the same title by Robin Campillo (released internationally as The Returned/They Came Back). Its premise: in a beautiful French countryside town, something strange happens. People that have been dead for years come back to life and return to their homes as if they had never left. Some of them have been dead for decades, others for a few weeks. They seek to integrate themselves back into society despite the changes that have occurred since their death. And no one can understand how and why those people have been supposedly chosen.
The first season is comprised of eight episodes of approximately one hour each, each one named after a character. The opening episode focuses on Camille (Yara Pilartz), a 15-year-old teenager who died in a traffic accident four years previously. Her twin sister, Léna (Jenna Thiam), is now 19, and like her parents, Jèrôme (Frédéric Pierrot) and Claire (Anne Consigny), never quite got over the loss.
The Séguret family will never be the same again
Another central character is Simon (Pierre Perrier), who died ten years ago having committed suicide on the day he was due to marry Adèle (Clothilde Hesme). She was pregnant at the time and ended up raising Chloé (Brune Martin) as a single mother until she met Thomas (Samir Guesmi), captain of the local Police force.
Julie (Céline Sallette) lives on her own and has no friends. Her life suddenly becomes a lot brighter when a little boy, Victor (Swann Nambotin) turns up at her doorstep and a beautiful mother-son relationship develops, even though Victor doesn’t communicate much. Having been dead for 35 years, he seems to understand his condition better than his fellow dead counterparts.
Joining the main cast we also have Sèrge (Guillaume Gouix), a serial killer murdered some years ago, his brother Toni (Grégory Gadebois) and Lucy (Ana Girardot), a psychic waitress who lives at The Lake Pub, the only bar in town.
Serial killer victim, sex clairvoyant and waitress Lucy
Les Revenants does a great job in avoiding clichés. When a character comes back, relatives don’t react by screaming or fainting. Each family supports their own in a different manner, never represented in the style of a caricature. The plot is all-involving and prioritises dialogue without becoming monotonous. The soundtrack, too, is nothing short of amazing – the Scottish post-rock band Mogwai provide a musical backdrop which fits the story like a glove with their trademark beautiful, dark, sad, mysterious, intense and multi-layered instrumentals. The opening sequence is a show in itself, with great image editing that’s in equal measure charming and frightening.
The cast is another major asset to this show. The highlight goes to Sallette’s performance – as Julie, having suffered previous traumatic events, she comes across as though she carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. Two other characters worthy of a special mention are Léna, the most questioning who refuses to accept the strange phenomenon, and Victor, mysterious and at times terrifying (even Stephen King tweeted that the kid was giving him nightmares).
Les Revenants carries a lot of melancholy, guilt and frustration. Some of those who are still alive aren’t necessarily living. They cling on to the past, can’t get over the loss of their loved ones and have destroyed any remaining relationships with those that are left. The dead have to face the reality of their own demise and try to understand how to exist among the living – and hereby lays the dramatic beauty of this story. The imagery is excellent in its depictions of mountains, almost empty streets, and the reservoir – a key location. The town doesn’t merit a name, just like the one in the book Blindness by Literature Nobel Prize-winning José Saramago, probably to make the exact same point – that such an unnatural event could take place anywhere in the world.
The town’s reservoir – will the truth resurface?
The first episode of Les Revenants’ second season, which premiered in September 2015, is a prize to those who managed to wait for so long. Listening to Mogwai’s theme song immediately puts the audience in the right mood to endure the show’s density, which remains strong and occasionally even scarier than its predecessor.
With no time for flashbacks or explanations of previous events, the first five minutes of the opening episode, titled “L’enfant” (“The Child”), picks up 6 months after the previous season left off. The build-up of tense and paranoid atmospheres brings great promise: things will never be the same again as the audience is made to feel as lost and disoriented as Adèle, pregnant and apparently wounded inside an ambulance.
From there onwards, Les Revenants must tend to a number of pivotal points and their different emotional stages. Many characters are going through strong changes, much like the decaying town itself, which keeps getting emptier and emptier. It’s in this very atmosphere of loneliness and melancholy that lays one of this production’s strongest points. As an audience we tend to face the toughest moments with a certain level of optimism and try to find a way out of difficult situations. However, this becomes almost impossible once we get sucked into this show’s atmosphere and we’re induced to share the same bleak perspective as its characters.
From its first season, Les Revenants could already be considered once of the most depressing television series ever created – and it’s likely to stay in that list, since the second season doesn’t bring any further joy to the plot. As the town keeps on sinking, the show drives itself further into a well of desolation, surrounded by deep and well-developed characters. In fact, character development is once again extremely strong in season 2, bringing a heavy emotional charge to the events from the first season, as the characters are trying to manage the consequences of the returned and attempting to deal with the mysteries that surround them. Although slow burning, Les Revenants is nonetheless a rollercoaster of heavy emotions, perhaps reaching as far as a television series can in that regard.
Beautiful cinematography starts with the opening sequence (no, it’s not Titanic)
In one of television’s best efforts of direction, photography and storyline, Les Revenants is constructed perfectly. It has a beauty and an atmosphere worthy of the best psychological thrillers. In a rare combination, it manages to give continuity to its amazing first season, pleasing the audience, and at the same time presents itself as a new beginning.
Both seasons 1 and 2 are now available on Netflix.
All pictures credit of Canal+