This review contains spoilers.
What a teasing game The Returned is playing. Just when you think it’s pegged out its corners as a handsome crime mystery with a spooky premise, it pulls a stunt of ball-tripping weirdness like that Victor/Serge merge, and has us all a fluster.
Just what or who is Victor, and what is the extent of his powers? Off-camera, he did away with interfering gossip Mme Payet Serge-style, then left her to enact that cliché about single women who live alone being eaten by their cats. Tick one in the demon box.
Tick two comes from Victor’s ability to either possess other of the Returned (in this case, stabby Serge), or at least to appear to be them. Could the resurrected dead all be one, and ‘Victor’ able to flit between their bodies? If it was Victor-wearing-Serge’s-face who attacked Julie in the lobby, only to turn back into himself and comfort her, then what was his motive? Did Victor save Julie from Serge, did he attack her in Serge’s form, or did he cause her to hallucinate the whole thing? In short, is the dead kid on Julie’s side, or not?
To be joyfully asking those questions so soon after watching the daily TV occurrence of an irate cop shouting “sod the procedure” at a hapless desk jockey is proof of The Returned’s genre straddling. This is a show that does convention and even cliché (Victor’s ‘creepy kid in a horror thing’ drawings and Camille introducing herself around as sitcom cousin Alice are surely the latter, too), but stirs them together with surprise, elegance and enigma.
The movie quotes continued this week, with Tim Burton’s Batman Returns bookending the episode. First came Julie dressed as Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, then came the corpse of poor Mme Payet surrounded by felines (though it’s more likely her brood were merely enjoying a spot of supporting character tartare than channelling the Burton film and licking her back to life). As well as looking cool, that particular nod reminds us we’re watching a work of fantasy by bringing to mind a world of comic book superpowers and dark resurrections. It was also horribly ironic. Julie was dressed as a character who could have kicked Serge all the way to next Sunday in those fetish-wear boots, but she was powerless against him and his knife.
Watching her attack was uncomfortable not just for the toe-curling sound design of that blade tearing through her abdomen. From the first shot of her kinky boots, through her flirty talk with girlfriend Laure, the camera wolf-whistled at Julie all the way up to her being savagely stabbed. US and UK TV has an insidious predilection for making its murder and attack victims young, hot, and female, and it seems that pervy taste has also trekked over to the continent.
What rescues The Returned from accusations of poor taste and misogyny though, is that Serge’s victim was not just girl number one (or the dehumanisingly nicknamed ‘Appetiser’), but Julie. For two episodes, we’ve come to know Julie first as a professional, treating Mr Costa, then as the protector/ward of uncanny, frightening Victor. This episode was named after her, not her would-be killer, and it’s her story we’re following.
After Julie’s attack, episode three jogged our memories with a beautifully smooth, uncut shot of the mourners gathering at Mr Costa’s funeral. Fabrice Gobert’s camera moved seamlessly from storyline to storyline as if it were playing a game of tag, using depth of field and tracking to link ten characters over the course of two minutes. The gathering also served to demonstrate just how small this small town is.
Small it may be, but lacking in police surveillance the town is not. Were police chief Thomas to spend longer looking for suspicious new arrivals like Serge and less time snooping on his fiancée and her resurrected ex, perhaps it would be a safer place to live. We all know the French take their civil responsibilities seriously, but Thomas’ cameras were PRISM-level intrusion. No doubt that domestic CCTV footage will help the narrative out of a cul-de-sac later on in proceedings. That, or they’ll be able to deliver some Paranormal Activity-style footage.
Because weird happenings are afoot. The mauled rabbit in the kitchen bin, the mysterious scar on Léna’s back, the dam water levels continuing to drop… The owls are definitely not what they seem in this place.
Narrative balance continues to be one of The Returned’s particular skills. Each character thread intrigues at this early stage, from Camille’s, to Adèle’s, to Serge and Toni’s, even the silent Mrs Costa.Thanks to petit Victor though, I admit to feeling more thrill on seeing Julie’s HLM in the establishing shot than any other building.
The element holding all of it together of course, the mystery, murders, romance, family drama… isn’t just clever plotting or camerawork, but the soundtrack. Instantly recognisable out of context, and lending every shot a sense of off-kilter tension, Mogwai’s score is a marvel.
It’s rare to be as interested and invested in each character of an ensemble, and perhaps only Game of Thrones – a very different animal – has achieved the same in recent years. There is another drama The Returned’s structure, mystery, and magnificent start recall, but the way it expanded messily out of hand after its early seasons make it almost too painful to bring up. The Returned is such good telly right now that to jinx it with comparisons isn’t worth the risk. Let’s just say we hope it doesn’t get lost.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Simon, here.
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