Review first published by Film4.
Synopsis: Robin Campillo’s 2004 feature imagines the dead returning to a community for reasons unknown and with purpose unclear.
Review: “Rachel, you have to accept what you feel,” says Dr Gardet (Frédéric Pierrot, himself later returning in a different role for the homonymous 2012 television series adaptation) to the woman (Géraldine Pailhas) whose case he has been carefully observing – much like DP Jeanne Lapoirie’s wide lens – from a distance. “Anger, frustration, hope, indifference, guilt – these emotions are hard to take all at once.”
Although Robin Campillo’s The Returned (aka Les Revenants, aka They Came Back) has been called a zombie film, it is not like the others. Its revenants are in good physical condition and utterly non-violent, while the director/co-writer seems, if anything, less concerned with his impenetrable undead than with the recently unbereaved. The opening sequence shows the deceased walking en masse from a cemetery to the town centre, setting the film’s uncanny tone at the outset. From here, the premised miracle of (worldwide) resurrection can simply be accepted as fact, so that its sociological, political and emotional repercussions can be explored at reflective leisure. The results are an eerily elegant ghost story, all the more surreal for the realist mode of its telling.
Rachel and others must come to terms with both the loss and the return of loved ones who, in all their sleepless, aphasic otherness, are no longer what they once were, but rather haunting embodiments of unresolved feelings that must eventually be buried. Characters here, alive or dead, internalise their emotions and never raise their voices – and Campillo’s artful restraint, only enhanced by the ethereal electronic score, induces the zombie-like, somnambulist state of the returned in viewers too, making us process our own complex, contradictory attitudes towards death through a veil of tears. Don’t question its logic – just accept what you feel.
In A Nutshell: Occupying a crepuscular space between life and death, wakefulness and sleep, arthouse and genre, Campillo’s astonishing debut is as unnervingly oneiric as it is oddly moving.