Global Gems: Les Revenants

Americans have a long tradition of devouring British television, from Prime Suspect & Monty Python to Downton Abbey & Doctor Who. The explosion of Internet streaming services means that now we can explore the best among the offerings from other countries too. Global Gems highlights some of our favorites.

The show: Les Revenants (The Returned)

Country of origin: France

Status & availability: The eight-episode first season aired in France in 2012 and in the US on SundanceTV in late 2013; a second season is planned to air in France and the US in 2015. You can currently stream season one in the US on Netflix.

Why you’ll like it: Take The Walking Dead, less exploding zombie heads, and mix it with Broadchurch‘s examination of the burdens secrets place on a small town. Add in stellar acting performances across the board, breathtaking alpine scenery, and a dash of The Leftovers‘ idea that solving the mystery is not the whole point.

The premise: Les Revenants is a zombie series that’s not really about zombies. It’s about what really makes us alive, what lengths we’ll go to in order to protect those we love, and the devastating power of the secrets we keep. Gorgeously shot and wonderfully written, this show may not be for everyone; one needs to be comfortable with a substantial level of ambiguity to really soak it all up. But if you are that person, you’re in for a stunning ride.

In a small town in the French Alps, the dead begin to rise, eager to return to their old lives. Chillingly, they remember nothing of their deaths. When they stumble back into town, looking identical to the day they died right down to their attire, nothing marks them as different except an insatiable appetite (for food; these aren’t the brain-eating type of undead). Shocked and disbelieving, loved ones are forced to grapple with the sudden reappearance of those they already mourned. Meanwhile, the water level at the local reservoir begins to drop as water mysteriously seeps through the dam and the encroaching flooding threatens to overwhelm the town’s power plant.

The five returned – lovelorn teen Camille, tortured musician Simon, silent waif Victor, homicidal Serge, and the enigmatic Mrs. Costa – grapple with how to reconnect with loved ones who’ve moved on and form new relationships as they search for the purpose behind their return. Their families and friends struggle to reintegrate people whom they’ve already buried and mourned back into lives with no easy place for them. Some in the town accept the returned almost effortlessly, needing no higher meaning to treasure the presence of someone thought lost forever. But for others, the returned bring only madness, and threaten to drag the mountain hamlet from its serene equilibrium to the brink of a menacing darkness reaching out from the town’s tragic past.

The French Alps tower over almost every exterior shot, suggesting a place both vast and claustrophobic at the same time. The narrative is rife with metaphor; as the towns’ secrets slowly become exposed, and the trust and solidarity among the residents decays, as do the returned. Water, with the power to hide, to kill, and to purify, figures strongly throughout, particularly in the almost Biblical final tableau. Characters study each other in mirrors and through glass, emphasizing barriers unseen but impenetrable. The cinematography is exquisite, and is echoed perfectly in Scottish band Mogwai’s eerie, ominous score.

Most striking is the way that Les Revenants embraces stillness and gives its narrative room to breathe without feeling slow. The writers relish the opportunity to sit with a character and understand their experience. The plot does move constantly forward, but without easy answers, encouraging the audience to feel the same bewildered dread that washes over the characters. Sometimes the show overplays the ambiguity card – Mrs. Costa in particular suffers from underdevelopment masquerading as mystery. However, if you can break free from the desire to have all your questions answered, Les Revenants is a masterful work showing how horror can be more potent when it comes from within and is delivered with artful restraint.