Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Honourable Mention: Les Revenants

Let’s make it clear from the first sentence, Les Revenants (marketed in the English market as They Came Back and then the Returned) is not a vampire film. Nor is it a zombie movie, at least not in the Romero mould. Why then look at it on Taliesin Meets the Vampires?

Well, this 2004 Robin Campillo film is certainly of genre interest – especially in view of some of the discussions I have had on the folklore that led to the media genre. It goes to the question of “What is a Vampire?” and the answer to that is quite difficult. We know that the name came through the vampire panics of the eighteenth century and it is argued that this form of restless dead are identifiable because of their need to imbibe blood. However restless dead types had previously imbibed human blood, examples are extant of both Scandinavian draugr and medieval revenants who partook of human blood although most examples of both types do not refer to blood at all.

Géraldine Pailhas as Rachel
The debate is larger than this article has room for, so let me say I fall to the camp, in respect of folklore, that the vampire is a type of restless dead, a subset if you like. This subset had a particular link to blood drinking but to ignore the other types of folkloric restless dead is to miss a huge chunk of the puzzle. Now, I said these aren’t zombies nor are they vampires. I think that the original French title sums it up. They are Revenants. Now the film itself was on my radar when it was first released but I never got around to watching it. More recently it has been made into a TV series and I really wanted to watch it, but I felt I should watch the original film first. My aim was not to post about it on the blog but, following the viewing, I felt that it is of genre interest – especially from a folklore point of view.

leaving the cemetery
That said, much is unexplained in the film – and I am going to spoil the ending, so please take that into account if you haven’t seen the film. One day the dead return. We open with them walking from the cemetery. These are not decaying ghouls, but seem whole and healthy even if their march is dreamlike in their light coloured clothing. The film tells us that there are 70 million in total (whether that is in France or across the world is not explained) and they all died in the last ten years. Now note here that none of them look like they just crawled out of the earth. This is important in respect of the ending, though none of the authorities comment on this during the film. In fact, I’d be opening up the graves and seeing what (if anything) is in there.

treated like refugees
The returned are placed in refugee camp-like centres and brought together with their families. There has to be a census of the dead and they are guaranteed their former jobs back (though most are over 60 and so retired). This brings in an economic burden as their jobs will have gone to others and the retirees require pension etc. What is not explored is the tricky issue of probate and to whom property belongs nor is the issue of partners who have moved on and found new love tackled. The dead take time to regain their memories but what if one was murdered? Perhaps these themes will be explored in the series? At the time of this article I am to yet watch it.

Jonathan Zaccaï as Mathieu
We see the impact that this has on the living through three main people. Rachel (Géraldine Pailhas) is reluctant to discover if her husband Mathieu (Jonathan Zaccaï) has returned but eventually reunites with him. The mayor (Victor Garrivier) has to run the town and reunite with his wife (Catherine Samie). Finally Rachel’s co-worker Isham (Djemel Barek) and his wife Véronique (Marie Matheron) are reunited with their young son Sylvain (Saady Delas) but the dead are not the same as they were. They have a form of aphasia and cannot create new memories. Later it is discovered that their speech is a form of echo and memory, rather than being innovative. They offer a semblance of life. This otherness forms the main crux of the film in that we are looking at the impact on the living, much in the way that a good zombie movie looks at the impact on human survivors, but in this case we look at a much subtler, emotional range.

the returned are cooler
Their bodies are a few degrees cooler than the living. They seem to not need sleep or food so much and they tend to wander. They also start having meetings – here is where the spoilers really are. They are planning escape. Why, we do not know for sure but we know it is back somewhere beyond, because one of the living has a heart attack and the spouse suggests that if they want to come with them then they just have to let go. However the distractions they have arranged cause the living to assume aggression and “fight back”. They have developed a drug that can put the returned into a permanent coma and deploy it in grenades; beyond these grenades the returned appear – through limited evidence – to be fairly indestructible.

back to the grave
The night after “the escape” the dead who have been put in comas are collected and then taken to their graves. They are placed atop them and seem to become hazy, insubstantial, before vanishing. This is where the folklore bit really comes in for me. The question has been asked, how did the folklore vampire leave its grave without disturbing it? This is not just a modern question, philosophers and thinkers during the eighteenth century panics asked the same thing.

a tad creepy
One theory was that it was an "astral" form that left the grave that then, somehow, became substantial. Is this the case here? It certainly looks like a possibility by the little clue we are offered. The film asks more questions than it answers, certainly in terms of the supernatural element. However that is fine as the film is about the reaction of the living rather than the story’s own rationale that explains the returned. The newly rereleased UK DVD suggests that this is “The original terrifying film”. To me that is misleading because I don’t believe there is anything terrifying about it. It could be described as melancholy and full of pathos, as an exploration of emotional reaction and (alright) a tad creepy at times, certainly it could be described as excellent cinema but ultimately not terrifying.

The imdb page is here.


WatchingTheDead said...

Its fascinating stuff. I'm half way or so through the series that aired last month on 4 and was in two minds whether to include my thoughts on it on my blog. The series sounds quite different in that it resolves around 6 or so characters who return years after dying with no memories as to what happened to them. I enjoyed your thoughts, and restless spirit folklore and I'll have to get it all watched (and the film).

Taliesin_ttlg said...

I'll look forward to your thoughts :)