Spoiler warning: do not read if you’re not up-to-date with The Returned episode five. Additionally, could anyone who’s seen the remaining episodes please keep it zipped for the rest of us, ta.
American Horror Story does it. Banshee does it. Game of Thrones sort of does it. Stowing clues to what’s to come in the opening credits of a TV show is the hip new TV trend, and nobody’s hipper than the French.
The Returned’s opening credits, like the rest of it, are atmospheric, beautiful, and very deliberately staged. A man stands in a crucifix pose, a child in the middle of the road, a girl is reflected in a steamed-up mirror… Each image holds symbolic meaning for the story to follow, but do they hold something else? Do The Returned’s opening credits contain clues?
We’re now over the half-way point with The Returned, Channel 4’s stunning supernatural import, and the questions just keep coming. With an eye on the series one finale (a second, due for French broadcast in 2014, is being written as I type), we delve into the atmospheric opening credits to see what they add to the deepening mysteries of the Alpine town whose dead return…
The Returned’s location, a small, modern mountain town dominated by craggy Alpine summits and an enormous concrete dam, is fundamental not only to its atmosphere, but also its plot. Filmed largely in the Haute-Savoie town of Annecy (the dam itself is the Barrage de Tignes, located fifty miles south-east as the corbeau flies), it’s hard to imagine any of the various in-development remakes sourcing a backdrop so perfectly attuned to, and inspiration for, The Returned’s themes.
The dam loomed large from episode one, firstly as it was discovered its water levels were mysteriously dropping, then secondly as the site of Mr Costa’s suicide, provoked by the return of the wife he’d buried decades before. Despite having no detectable cracks, dam water has been leaking into the adjoining power station since the Returned began to, well, return.
This opening credits dam shot doesn’t do much more than remind us of its central role in the mystery, which involves the elemental power of water, and a Frankenstein-inflected connection between the walking dead and electricity. Figuratively, the concept of fissures in barriers and things escaping through them brings to mind an image of the Returned having leaked into this world from a place – as Camille jokingly describes it – haunted by dead souls. It’s also yet another instance of doubles and twins in the drama, as we learn in episode five that the new dam replaced an older counterpart that broke and flooded a village, just as the dead are flooding back into this village. Can we assume the dam is a Hellmouth-type hotspot for supernatural activity?
Discovered by The Returned’s characters in episode five, but noted by viewers since the drama’s opening moments, is the spectral sight of a herd of lifeless mountain creatures suspended underneath the lake’s waters.
Before we were given an explanation of how the ibex, fox and badger brigade ended up floating underwater, theories abounded. They’d been buried when the first dam was built, then came back to life with the super strength of that butterfly from the series opener, and disturbed the dam foundations, some said. Others maintained the beasts’ deaths were payment in a demonic exchange for the return of the human dead. Others still that they died drinking lake water contaminated with zombie juju…
Suicide, it’s suggested by the town’s resident animal coroner, was the actual explanation. It makes a sort of sense too, as The Returned’s dead seem to have come back invulnerable and immortal, so if this macabre menagerie were indeed back from the grave, a spot of drowning wouldn’t stop them in their tracks. No, this lot pulled a Mr Costa, and terrified of the unnatural goings-on, chose death. They function as an early warning system then, like a dog in a horror flick, that something is very wrong in this town.
Victor and the coach crash
Enigmatic Victor (Swann Nambotin) began his time on The Returned as an Damien-ish horror child, but has since mellowed into an ordinary little murdered boy who can project violent hallucinations into the minds of those around him. Well, perhaps not all that ordinary.
This opening credits image shows Victor in the clothing and position in which he was seen during the final moments of episode one. If you remember, we were shown Camille’s school coach disappear off the side of the road once at the beginning of the hour, and then once again at the end. The second time, we saw the scene from inside the coach, from Camille distracting the driver thanks to her psychic twin orgasm (incredible isn’t it, that The Returned can include plot points like that and a cannibal serial killer, without stepping once into kitsch territory), to the little boy in the middle of the road. That little boy was Victor, and seeing as he died thirty-odd years before the crash, looks like proof that he’s been back much longer than the others, at least four years to be precise. During that time, he hasn’t changed in appearance, positing the notion that the Returned are stuck, vampire-like, at the form in which they died.
In this picture, Victor is stood next to a memorial wreath for the thirty-eight schoolchildren whose deaths he partly caused. Was it really Victor that day on the road, or a vision of him? How long has he been back from the dead? Was he testing his powers of regeneration by standing in the middle of the road, or deliberately trying to send the coach over the edge? Most urgent of all, why and how does Victor differ from the other Returnees?
These two may just be providing a touch of local colour to the opening credits (“Welcome to the sunny French Alps, where you can have it off in a field next to a serial killer’s cabin and two freshly dug graves!”), or they may be part of the story. If it’s the latter, then who are they? Their proximity to Serge’s isolated house suggest they could comprise a younger, puffier-haired version of him and an unidentified girl. What started Serge on the path to stabbing and eating women? Was he once a carefree rural canoodler?
Of the other potential pairings, the hair colour is all wrong for Adèle and Simon, though we could possibly be looking at Léna and Frédéric in years past, or even Camille and a younger Frédéric. Going back even further, and noting that the actor name to appear next to the couple is that of Frédéric Pierrot, who plays crumpled father Jérôme, it could be a flashback even further, to his and estranged wife Claire’s courtship. If they turn out to be anyone though, my money’s on Lucy Clarsen and an unidentified client of her side-line in spiritualist prostitution. Episode six is named for Lucy, so the answers may come then…
Complicating the idea that it could be a younger Serge embracing une belle fille in the previous image, is the camera pan across to what episode five reveals is his and his mother’s grave. Toni did away with his serial killer brother seven years before, and the siblings’ mother followed – we assume of natural causes – not long afterwards. It’s her grave, presumably, sporting the bouquet of flowers.
Serge and Toni’s isolated mountain home is the kind of place Vogue might choose for an edgy torture porn-inspired fashion shoot. Workbenches, shackles, chains, farm machinery, weaponry, butcher’s hooks, a zoo-full of dead animals… the place is a theme park of moribund disquiet.
This slow-mo opening credits shot of some taxidermied beasties brings to mind death (obvs), but also predators and prey, courtesy of the kitten pawing at that moth. We assume the rules of the Returned (if, indeed, there turn out to be any), mean that animals whose heads have been cut off, hollowed out, and stuffed with sawdust are unable to come back to life, unless series two is going to get very strange indeed…
We mentioned Frankenstein earlier, but the films of David Lynch might be a more apt reference point for the role of electricity in The Returned. In the former novel, Shelley alluded to electricity being used for the reanimation of the dead, but in a number of Lynch’s films, electricity – especially lights flickering – is specifically connected to evil.
Just about every one of the Returned has been shown affecting electricity, namely lighting, on their progress through their after-life. Camille made the petrol station lights flicker in her walk home in episode one, Simon appeared to cause a city-wide black-out on the run from the police in week four, and Victor did the same this week when he introduced Pierre to the vision of his killer. Water from the dam is seeping into the power station, and this opening credits shot shows its lines fizzing with unpredictable power. Just how are the dead and the power station connected?
Look at that puddle. There. See it? Reflected in that puddle are two children playing, but only one to cast the reflection. Is the other a ghost kid? A symbolic representation of the shadow of childhood? A spooky reminder that the Returned are an eldritch bunch? Creepy Victor? Or all of the above?
The cast name that appears next to this striking image of someone pulling a Christ-like pose in front of the town’s library is that of Jean-François Sivadier, the actor behind charity-worker-with-a-murky-past, Pierre.
A born-again Christian with plenty to repent for if his role in the murder of Victor and his family is representative of his early life, Pierre now leads group therapy sessions and runs The Helping Hand drop-in centre for the homeless and undead. This cruciform pose could be a nod to Pierre’s belief that the reappearance of the dead is a Christian miracle, a theme continued by young Chloe’s understanding of her dead father Simon as an angel.
Simon the outsider
The appearance of Simon outside his ex-fiancée’s new home typifies his outsider status. The neat gated community in which Adèle now lives with her daughter and police chief Thomas is at odds with the chaotic, youthful apartment Simon shared with Adèle a decade earlier, and an illustration of her having outgrown him (if The Returned’s stories can be read as allegories for real-life emotional situations, then theirs is the easiest to relate to. Who hasn’t had a relationship in which one or other person moves on, while the other remains a relic to a time that no longer exists?).
Also key to this moment are the lights dimming (see The Power Station), and Simon’s menacing turn towards the camera. There’s a great deal we don’t yet know about the returnees, but it’s shots like these that prove the show’s makers are keen for us to be wary of them.
Serge and who?
Granted, this shot of Serge in the underpass accompanied by an unidentified figure could be photographic trickery (an image of his two selves, one a normal man, the other a vicious killer perhaps) but something spotted by Vicky Prior in this review of The Returned’s fifth episode makes you want to look again. Prior asked, “If Julie is the Appetiser and there were other victims after her, who killed them? Serge was in the grave…”. Who indeed? This shadowy figure perhaps? The only sticking point with the theory is a matter of translation. In the English version shown by Channel 4, Julie was indeed referred to as “The Appetiser”, but the original French is closer to “the unfinished one”, suggesting she was indeed Serge’s last victim before his death.
Camille and Léna
Twins (psychic twins, naturellement) being separated by death then reunited at different ages is so rich an emotional seam to mine, Camille and Léna could have filled a series of their own. From the lake-water reflections in the series posters, to the reflecting-something-that-isn’t-there puddle above, to countless repeated images in mirrors and glass throughout the series, The Returned appears to be somewhat in love with the visual idea of identical twins, too.
This shot contains a vague image of what looks to be Léna aged eighteen coming towards the fifteen-year-old Camille in this section, before turning into Camille’s double. We don’t know if we’re looking at one or both twins, and at which ages here. Many have inferred that the character we call Léna is in fact, Camille and vice versa, after a teenage swap. That seems a step too far into Disney’s The Parent Trap territory for The Returned, but the ambiguity is certainly there.
There we have it then, the hints and symbolism in The Returned‘s opening credits. Tell us what we’ve missed below.
The Returned continues on Sunday the 14th of July at 9pm on Channel 4. Read our spoiler-filled episode reviews, here.
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