Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Returned

One seemingly ordinary day, an isolated French mountain town awakes to find that its dead have come back to life. Why did some return and not others? Did they do so for a reason—and if so, what? Neither the dead, the living, nor the viewer knows—and if the show’s creators do, they’re not telling. HBO's The Leftovers has a similar premise: one day in October, 2% of the earth’s population—140 million people—inexplicably disappears. The Returned and The Leftovers aren’t concerned with the how or why of these events, but with their fallout. Both shows are like lab experiments: with their creators putting characters in freakish situations and recording the results.

The inexplicable premise of The Returned suffuses it with ambient dread. Wikipedia says that, “High-concept narratives are typically characterised [sic] by an overarching ‘what if?’ scenario that acts as a catalyst for the following events.” On The Returned, the unexplained catalyst creates a reservoir of unease, its water level steadily, inexorably, rising. Mogwai’s moody, atmospheric score creaks like a rusty door and thuds like a frightened heart. In my struggle to convey the show’s creepiness, I never came up with a better way than Emily Nussbaum did in her brief New Yorker review, which simply listed images: “A butterfly breaks through a glass case; mountain goats float in a lake; a girl’s fingers trail across a fogged window.” In one of my favorite shots, from the opening credits, electricity crackles along power lines like the lightning that animated Frankenstein’s monster. As the camera lingers on the landscape, its lush, lonely beauty takes on a sinister quality; agonizingly slow pans—down a closet door, along a line of stunned faces—build tension. Violence simmers, occasionally rising to the surface: in shootings, stabbings, fires, and festering wounds. At those times, too, the camera lingers quietly, not looking away.

Emily Nussbaum calls The Returned “an effective meditation on how absurd a notion ‘closure’ is after any terrible loss.” The show also explores ideas of enclosure and escape. Glass shatters, dams burst—and walls close in. Like the dinner guests in Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist film The Exterminating Angel, who find themselves mysteriously unable to leave the dining room at the end of their meal, so too are this show’s characters confined, the very landscape refashioning itself around them in an unsolvable maze. In the seventh and penultimate episode, three of them try to leave town, only to find themselves driving around and around in an endless loop. In the season finale, the principal characters’ world shrinks to the size of a single room, in which they huddle all night long, kept awake by the clatter of undead hands on metal shades. Fittingly, far from providing answers, the season finale opens up yet more questions, as the characters emerge blinking into the morning light to find the landscape of the town forever altered.

Stray Observations: 
  • Popular culture has reached a serial killer saturation point. It’s hard not to say this without sounding schoolmarmish, but for me, if you’re going to feature one, you must justify doing so. (The Fall is one such example.) In any case, this isn't a subject to be handled carelessly, and Serge, the serial killer who eats women’s stomachs, is pretty carelessly handed. I’m not sure what the show wants me to think of him—which, to be fair, is true of almost every other character too. But none of the other characters, um, eat women’s stomachs. In one scene, after abducting a teenage girl, Serge smears healing nettle paste onto a wound on her back, fingers trembling with barely contained lust. When he steps away from her, instead of attacking, the show seems to encourage us to applaud his restraint—it certainly rewards him for it when the girl has enthusiastic sex with him later on. Years ago, Serge’s vicious attack nearly killed a young woman named Julie. “It wasn’t your fault,” Serge's brother Toni tells him. Then whose exactly was it? The show doesn’t bother to explain. It isn’t so much what the show does with Serge as what it doesn’t do with him—and if you’re going to neglect a character like that, why write him at all?
  • Speaking of Julie. I love the way she dresses. Baggy pants, bulky sweaters, plaid flannel button-downs over t-shirts: lots of protective layers. Unbrushed hair. Hooded eyes. The guardedness in her face, the tightness of her body, shows rather than tells us she's nowhere near recovered from Serge's attack. The psychological scars are evident even before she lifts her shirt for the first time to reveal the physical ones. 
  • Also speaking of Julie—who is gay, by the way—well, speaking of the person who plays her—Céline Sallette, that's the name of the person who plays her—does anyone have any idea whether there's any chance she's gay IRL? Any chance at all? And if you do can you get at me? Thanks x

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