The Returned episode 1 review: Camille

French supernatural thriller The Returned is one of the TV treats of the year so far. Here’s our review of the first episode…

This review contains spoilers. Read our spoiler-free review, here.

1.1 Camille

The Returned seems destined to sit alongside The Wire and The Killing as a drama whose broadsheet praise column inches will outnumber its UK viewers. The fact that it’s French won’t help. Daft Punk and Michel Roux Jr. aside, the last time the Great British public fell for a Francophone creation were those Papa Nicole Renault Clio ads. In the absence of catchy electronica, twinkly eyed Michelin star chefs, or suspiciously flirty father/daughter shenanigans then, what does The Returned have to offer?

In short, it’s tremendous television. Mysterious, beautiful, and unusual, The Returned is certainly the best-looking new drama to arrive this year, and if early signs don’t lie, we’ll soon be able to snip off that compound adjective’s second half.

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There’s plenty to praise in terms of its composition and cinematic style, but the first episode also deftly balances story and character without resorting to clunky exposition. We’re left with any number of questions, but encouraged by this early show of quality that The Returned will answer them in good time. With a second series already commissioned in France, we’re also safe in the knowledge that there’s room enough to tell this story, and to do it well.

What then, is its story? The residents of an isolated mountain town are confronted by the reappearance of a handful of their dead. Said Returned turn up with nary a scratch on them, as if they’d never left. Some (Camille) have been gone for four years, others (Simon) – for ten, and at least one (Mrs Costa) for decades. Hungry and amnesiac, the dead have no idea what befell them, and no notion of life having moved on without them. This, to put it politely, knocks the living for six.

The exception at this point seems to be young ‘Victor’, the young Rowan Atkinson lookalike who attaches himself to Julie and whose appearance, we realise, hasn’t changed a day since four years earlier when he caused the coach carrying Camille and thirty-seven other schoolchildren to plummet over a mountain edge. Swann Nambotin, the young actor who plays Victor, excels at the one direction he appears to have been given in episode one: creep us the hell out, kid. 

Victor’s scenes, and to an extent those of Simon and the Miss Havisham-ish Adèle, showcase director Fabrice Gobert’s firm grasp of horror conventions. The uncanny lad emerges phantom-like behind Julie at the atmospherically neon-lit bus stop, then lurks in the back of the frame before appearing and disappearing in her darkened garden. How was Victor able to enter Julie’s building when Simon needed a key code? He’s not your common or garden living corpse it seems.

It’s not the scare tricks that make The Returned special, moreover its beautiful light, composition, soundtrack, and of course, location. The remake rights having been sold to a number of territories, (including a forthcoming UK version by Paul Abbott’s production company), it’s difficult to picture how multiple settings can be found that combine that mountainous landscape’s sense of the Romantic sublime with the vast blankness of the concrete dam and modern dwellings. The Yorkshire moors perhaps? The Scottish highlands? Wherever is chosen to retell this story abroad, it has a great deal to live up to.

As will the remakes’ directing teams. The Returned builds its atmosphere slowly and elegantly, making use of the eerie nature of stillness, reflections, and lingering just a second too long for comfort. It’s no surprise that David Lynch (Twin Peaks) and Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) aside, Gobert cites photography as one of his chief visual influences. His establishing and wide interior shots, such as those inside Camille’s house in episode one, pay homage to US photographer Gregory Crewdson, most commercially recognised perhaps for his appealingly unnerving portrait of Six Feet Under’s Fisher family used to promote the show’s third season.

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Similarly hard to imagine is a soundtrack that rivals Mogwai’s sparse motifs and fuzzy sustained score without ripping it off. Composed by the Scottish post-rock group on the basis of a Skype call with the director and two episode scripts, Mogwai’s score is stirred through The Returned, just as much inspired by the show, as having inspired it. Does it, like the Broadchurch soundtrack, contain clues to solve the show’s mysteries? With track titles like Eagle Tax, Portugal and Wizard Motor, it seems unlikely. Then again, this cult French supernatural drama is the first of its kind. Anything’s possible.

By the end of episode one, it’s clear that The Returned is no more a zombie show than Let the Right One In was just a vampire flick. Its slant so far is on the emotional reactions of the living to the return of their loved ones, not slashing and splashing undead brains. That much is clear from the understated reunion scene between Camille and her mother, which keeps close focus on the latter’s bewildered, overwhelmed expression.

Not that we should become too comfortable with the idea of The Returned as heightened family drama. Lucy meeting a violent end at the hands of that anonymous killer introduces a thriller thread to stimulate a different part of our brains, one with a taste for a less existential kind of intrigue.

Read our interview with The Returned’s director, Fabrice Gobert, and producer, Caroline Benjo, here.

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