AKA The Returned
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DIRECTED BY: Robin Campillo
FEATURING: Géraldine Pailhas, Jonathan Zaccaï, Frédéric Pierrot, Victor Garrivier
PLOT: A small French town struggles to cope with the sudden appearance of thousands of people who have mysteriously returned after having died years ago; initial bureaucratic problems give way to uncertainty about the motives of the newly resurrected.
COMMENTS: In a film with arresting imagery, there may be no scene more powerful than that which opens They Came Back: the once dead slowly making their way into town, clean and outwardly healthy and dressed in light pastels and creepy as all get out. It is a high concept made manifest: all those we have lost over the past decade, back in the world as if they’d never been gone. It’s a powerful notion, given strength through the haunting visuals, and it’s something the film will struggle to get back to for the length of its running time.
In contrast to the visceral scares of the many risen-dead flicks that have graced screens in recent decades, They Came Back is more interested in a looming atmosphere of dread. By all appearances, the dead look and behave normally, but everyone begins to notice that they are somehow… off. Indeed, the medical community issues repeated warnings that the resurrected are not quite right (and develop a drug to render them unconscious), and one doctor in particular takes an interest in strange late-night meetings the undead are holding. From the get-go, we’re distinctly aware that there is an unseen threat that no one can understand. But that mystery is only about half the tale.
Writer-director Campillo is equally concerned with how individuals cope with this unprecedented situation. There’s the town’s mayor, who can barely stand to look at his wife when she first beckons to him. Or a couple who have very different reactions to the reappearance of their 6-year-old son. Most prominent is Rachel, a bureaucrat who avoids her lost love Mathieu until he follows her home one day like a beloved puppy. All show a determination to pick up where they left off, but each seems filled with deep and rueful reservations.
This is where the movie’s struggle to balance an examination of people pushed to their limits with a straight-out horror film becomes most acute. There’s still juice in the sight of humans moving resolutely in sync, and in particular, a scene where the mayor is confronted by a group of returnees comes as close as any moment in the film to outright shock, and even then it is far more horrifying to contemplate its ideas than to look upon anything on the screen. The movie knows it has to build to something big, that it needs to throw in something momentous to justify the journey. But it’s just not that kind of movie.
And ultimately, that dictates the finale; it just sort of ends. The dead are gone again, and the living are left to reckon with the impact of what they’ve experienced. It’s nice that the film doesn’t feel pressured to manufacture something big, but it also feels like a cheat. If you’re going to offer a “what if” premise, you probably need to offer some suggestion as to what the “if” would be. As it stands, we have a mix of character study and sci-fi mystery that doesn’t ever fully invest in either.
Like many ideas that are promising but not fully explored, the notion behind They Came Back is solid enough to have returned from the dead itself. There seems to be agreement that a single film doesn’t have the space to explore the conflict and the characters with sufficient weight, and that TV might be a more effective platform. An attempt in 2007 to adapt the material to television in the US didn’t make it past its pilot, but a French series in 2012 was a substantial hit, and eventually the concept finally went stateside with a different Americanized version. Our fascination with the frustrating permanence of death is animating a lot of popular entertainment, so we surely can expect more takes on the idea to return at any time.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…an eerily elegant ghost story, all the more surreal for the realist mode of its telling… Campillo’s astonishing debut is as unnervingly oneiric as it is oddly moving.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (originally published in Film4)
(This movie was nominated for review by Dwarf Oscar, who called it “creepy in an unusual way.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)