In the pantheon of recent television shows steeped in mystery more than solutions — from “Lost” to the first season of “True Detective” — no recent program has recaptured the creepy elegance of “Twin Peaks” better than “The Returned” (“Les Revenants”). With two episodes previewed this week in the Toronto International Film Festival’s Primetime section, the show continues to provide a unique narrative experience that propels viewers to think things through, even if they still don’t add up.
The French series, the first season of which made its way to North America two years ago on Sundance TV, explores the bizarre circumstances under which the dead come back to life in a small town, unaware of their postmortem state or why they came back. With a layered approach and massive ensemble, creator Fabrice Gobert juggles an extraordinary number of ambiguous situations united by a pervasive dread about the living and the dead intermingling for unknown reasons. The heavy atmosphere, guided by Mogwai’s awe-inspiring score and first-rate performances across the board, draws you into a universe of morbid puzzle pieces.
Creator Fabrice Gobert adapted “The Returned” from a 2004 movie, but in the time since the first season aired, it itself inspired a poorly-received English language version on A&E. While that attempt was canceled in June, the original series continues to develop an enticing web of murky situations and the underlying impression of something wicked lurking just outside the frame.
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In the first season of “The Returned,” hordes of victims from a school bus crash that traumatized the community abruptly show up at their parents’ doorsteps, joined shortly afterward by any number of other previously deceased residents from different periods in the town’s history. These were not your average zombies: While pale-skinned, frequently hungry and prone to bouts of rage, they came across more like ghostly version of their former selves than reanimated corpses.
But they also adhered to an unseen force never fully explained, which ultimately compelled them to join forces and leave their old relatives behind. In the closing moments, the dead ventured off into the wilderness while the rest of the town holed up in the homeless shelter known as the Helping Hand, with one eerie exception: Adèle (Clotilde Hesme), the school teacher whose deceased husband was among the returned, learns that she’s pregnant with his child.
While many of the scarier moments in “The Returned” involve abstract fears, the second season dives straight into body horror. Its first episode, “The Child,” opens six months after the earlier events, with Adèle in the hospital and experiencing nightmares surrounding the nature of her infant. Elsewhere, resurrected 15-year-old Camille (Yara Pilartz) has moved to an empty neighboring town with her mother Claire (Anne Consigny). They appear to be spending their days dreading the outdoors, where other anonymous dead hover near vacant roads and block any paths to escape.
When the pair welcome a new set of school bus victims into their home, they frantically try to quiet down the visitors in vain, leading to a horrific tracking shot that veers from the indoor safety to a gathering army of shadowy figures outside. These disquieting moments give “The Returned” its nightmarish power, and it remains potent as ever.
Why do the dead come back to life and what evidently nefarious scheme have they planned? It’s a testament to the show’s brilliant atmospheric storytelling that this central enigma has been unsolved without being overextended. “The Child” and the new season’s second episode, “Milan,” continue building intrigue while using the time jump to advance the narrative.
Camille’s father Jerome (the wonderfully frazzled-looking Frédéric Pierrot) emerges in these episodes as a kind of avatar for obsessive viewers. Rattled by the departure of his wife and daughter, he has sprouted an unkempt beard and isolated himself in his home with piles of maps and news clippings, digging through incidents of resurrections to find a pattern. “I’m looking for meaning,” he says to his other daughter, the increasingly flustered Lena (Jenna Thiam). In the brief moment when we see his theories take shape, it does look he’s on to something, but nothing in “The Returned” is a definite answer. That’s the key to its absorbing power.
The new episodes also revisit the story of resurrected child Victor (Swann Nambotin), who died in a robbery ages ago and now lives with former police officer Julie (Céline Sallette) in the same undead community. Yet with the arrival of Victor’s mother and hints of a much darker past than he has explained, it’s clear that the boy’s past hides more secrets than merely the strange conditions of his second life. Like Camille, Victor’s presence is at once innocent and unnerving, with his allegiances and sense of identity debatable as ever.
No matter its many moving parts, “The Returned” would be nothing without its painterly look. The dreamlike visuals kicked into high gear near the end of the last season, when water levels in the lake adjacent to the town lowered just enough to reveal the tops of homes buried by a flood long ago. It’s here that the dead traverse the waters with some new arrivals on a ramshackle flotation device. As they travel to their new hideaway in a River of Styx-like passage, “The Returned” adds yet another wondrously haunting image to its stable of poetic storytelling devices.
The dead keep rising — including the arrival one character who died last as recently as last season — but the rest of the world barely takes notice. While most of the town’s residents try to move on, the newly arrived police forces question their claims. Meanwhile, former criminal-turned-good samaritan Pierre (Jean-François Sivadier) continues to promote himself as the beacon of hope for the town, even as his monitoring of local developments has taken on a dictatorial quality. Once again, the arrival of the dead doesn’t always carry the same threat as the reaction to them among the living.
Like the previous season, “The Returned” teases information more often than it provides immediate payoff, and continues to risk the possibility of a disappointing outcome. Both new episodes showcase a recurring forward momentum without any real finality. The situation with Adèle’s infant, for example, could form the crux of the show — but so far only dominates a handful of moments. Whether it’s heading toward a satisfactory outcome is hard to say.
However, the very fear of unresolved problems lies at the root of the show’s appeal. Each new installment explores the existential horror of coming to grips with a situation just beyond the grasp of human comprehension. During one of the more suspenseful moments in “Milan,” Camille considers suicide just to prove she’s unkillable, at which point another dead character approaches from behind. “You think you know the rules, do you?” he says. Because “The Returned” keeps pointing to the frightening possibility that there aren’t any.
“The Returned” Season 2 will premiere on SundanceTV Saturday, October 31 at 10:00pm.