Friday, 19 July 2013

On DVD: "The Returned/Les Revenants"

The screenwriter Robin Campillo has come to prominence in recent years for his collaborations with Laurent Cantet - he co-wrote 2008's outstanding The Class - but he made his own confident stab at directing back in 2004 with the remarkably well-sustained philosophical chiller Les Revenants, which is being released on DVD this Monday under the title of the hit TV series it subsequently inspired: The Returned. Campillo here treats the undead as a sociological phenomenon, his low-key yet admirably precise intentions signalled early on with a cut from the film's "zombies" pouring out of the cemetery to a council meeting in full progress: the emphasis from here on in is not on what they might do to us, but what we might do with them if they did, indeed, come back.

Glassy-eyed, "they" are, and slow on the uptake, too, but since they display no immediate signs of blood/brainlust, they've been ruled by the UN to have their own human-ish rights, returning them to their earlier homes and jobs - and forcing those left behind, who mourned their passing first time around, into coming to terms with some occasionally unhappy memories. Suspicion, however, persists among the wider community: a shared concern about where these houseguests go at night obliges the council to fork out for surveillance cameras attached to balloons.

Again, we see how Campillo has come to flip the genre on its head: the issue in Les Revenants isn't bloody population decrease, but sudden and seemingly incontrovertible population increase - thus making the film a thousand times more relevant to a society growing older and more crowded by the day. 65% of the 70 million undead revived here are, we're told, upwards of sixty years old, which puts a stop to any thoughts of sexy zombies, while setting up the perennially fruitful themes of integration and adaptation: the focus is held firmly on those mental and physical processes that allow us to forgive and forget, to connect and reconnect, in any case to get on with life.

What's scary about these so-called antagonists is their apparent inability to love as they once did; they really are zombies in this respect, going unfeelingly through the same old motions, unable to change or conceive of anything worth building. "Their thoughts and memories go crowding into darkness" is the somewhat poetic diagnosis one Red Cross worker offers; indeed, these returned appear more depressed than they do feral, which again allows Campillo and the film to raise the question of proper treatment. 

It could seem drippy or bloodless - flirting with romantic drama in places, which might send more seasoned gorehounds hurtling to the exits - were it not astonishingly acted (or, rather, non-acted) by its revenant ensemble, who numb their emotions and somehow manage to locate previously unexplored tensions in the notion of zombies who just want to get back to normality. Stripping back some of the gory excess allows the film to be eerie and haunting in whole new ways, and for Campillo to redefine what, in fact, the zombie movie might serve as: a conduit for asking wider questions of society, and how, at times of stress, we both do and don't relate to one another.

The Returned is available on DVD through Arrow Films from Monday.

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