When you are French, the return of the living dead provokes more of an existential crisis than a full-blown panic. Oh, it’s you, person-who-died-10-years-ago — bonjour. Sit, talk. Would you like a cigarette?
In writer/director Fabrice Gobert’s hauntingly effective and highly original eight-part miniseries “The Returned,” which begins Thursday night on Sundance Channel, a few deceased residents suddenly come back to their quiet mountain town in the Rhone-Alps region, but not with the slow, shuffling menace we’ve come to equate (and frankly overdo) with zombies. These dead are rejuvenated at the age and appearance they were when their loved ones last saw them — four years ago or even 35 years ago. Not a scratch on them (yet).
Among the first is Camille (Yara Pilartz), an introspective 15-year-old who died in a tragic bus plunge on a school field trip. Although she is supposed to be buried in the town cemetery, she walks home from the ravine where she died, fixes a snack, draws herself a bath and wonders who’s been messing with the things in her bedroom — to the utter astonishment of her mother, Claire (Anne Consigny).
It’s deeply upsetting for the rest of the family, too, particularly Camille’s rebellious twin sister, Lena (Jenna Thiam), who is now 19. After the screaming and crying, what is the family supposed to do? They don’t tell a soul, except Claire’s self-absorbed pastor (Jean-François Sivadier), who pronounces Camille’s return a miracle. Now the issue is how to explain Camille’s reappearance to the other parents who lost children in the accident.
“The Returned” was a hit when it aired in France in late 2012 (as “Les Revenants,” very loosely based on a 2004 film of the same name). It is a uniquely rendered creep show that specializes in meaningful silences, emotional stress and dour moods. In so doing, it takes its place among recent miniseries that artfully elude their genres, including “Top of the Lake” and “Rectify,” which both aired on Sundance this year, and even “In the Flesh” and the excellent “Broadchurch” on BBC America.
As with “Broadchurch,” I recommend “The Returned” only for those viewers who are prepared for its uncomfortable exploration of death, grief and, in this case, eerie occurrences of resurrection. (“Was Jesus considered a ghost when he came back?” a confused policeman asks a local priest.) “The Returned” exists somewhere between a horror story and an act of magical thinking; its premise is simply not for everyone.
It’s also in French, with subtitles.
Man, is it French — in the most stylish, morose and occasionally aloof ways. Episode by episode, “The Returned” unravels, savors and even overthinks its central mysteries: Why are these people back? What happens now? Its pace is purposefully slow — the kind of slow we just don’t do in America anymore, especially when it comes to the walking dead. Despite the plodding, you may find yourself on the edge of your seat anyhow.
Along with Camille, there is Victor (Swann Nambotin), a little boy who won’t speak after he follows home a physician, Julie (Céline Sallette), who takes him in. And Simon (Pierre Perrier), a brooding young man who searches for his fiancee (Clotilde Hesme), who, in the decade since Simon killed himself, has raised their young daughter and is about to marry the local police captain (Samir Guesmi). There’s also the return of a deceased serial attacker who stalked women as they were walking home at night.
What will happen to these undead? What if their loved ones have moved on and don’t welcome them back? And why is the nearby dam leaking? And why did the Bambi critters in the local forest rush to drown themselves in the lake?
“The Returned” is so beautiful to look at that it’s easy to miss its shortcomings, particularly as it nears the finish. Although this incredible event has happened to the townspeople, the show takes a tad too long to connect its many plot threads; like most stylish Euro-mysteries, it has a habit of raising more questions than it can ever answer. Some scenes are redundant, which means viewers are likely to peel off before the final episode, which is where “The Returned” begins to resemble something we’d commonly recognize as a zombie film. Even then, it’s more sad than terrifying.
(first of eight parts) premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. on Sundance Channel.