The undeniable impact of the eerie French drama The Returned owes much to its unsettling locations, writes Charles Holland
The Returned is set in a small French Alpine town overshadowed by a vast hydroelectric dam. Inexplicably, dead townsfolk begin to reappear. Why these particular people have returned is at first unclear, although a web of connections is slowly established. Some of the returned are school children who died in a bus accident, others are victims of a catastrophe in the town’s past when the dam burst. Far from being kitsch or outlandish, this premise is used to explore issues of loss and regret as well the existential fear brought on by the unwanted “revenants”.
The town’s architecture plays a key role in orchestrating these events and exploring their emotional effects. The programme’s director Fabrice Gobert has described the town as a character in itself, although it is in reality a composite of various locations. The most powerful of these is the dam itself, a malign presence that threatens the town’s residents as much as it protects them. At the start of the programme’s first season, the dam appears to be failing, the water level in the reservoir behind it dropping to reveal the remains of flooded houses.
Then the town floods again. The water eventually recedes but large sections of the town remain empty. One character stays in her formerly chic modernist apartment, its spiral stair rusting and dark rings of damp encircling its walls. There are other compelling images: a row of streetlights disappearing into the dark water, a house entirely lined in plastic sheeting. And then there’s The Lake Pub, seemingly the only place in the whole town where you can get a drink, and a building that becomes increasingly desperate and deserted as the series progresses.
Escaping the town appears impossible. We see several people attempt it but they are held in an inexplicable orbit, condemned to pass by the same landmarks again and again until they give up. The programme seems at least partly about the suffocating intensity of small town life, the characters unable to escape the community’s past.
On some level, the dam represents a perversion of nature for which the townspeople are suffering. Certainly there are suggestions that not just the town’s design but its entire philosophy is flawed, an act of human hubris. It is a place in the malign grip of its own infrastructure. Investigators pore over drawings of the dam to work out why it has failed and police divers encounter tormented souls at the bottom of the reservoir.
This is an updating of the traditional ghost story where the entire town is haunted. Instead of gothic piles and graveyards we have empty shopping malls and deserted suburban cul-de-sacs. Nothing can be relied upon. The police and the army have little ability to grasp what’s going on. Lights flicker on and off, roads turn inexplicably into forest tracks that lead nowhere.
It is no coincidence that the most dangerous place to be in this town is called The Helping Hand, a refuge for the lost and dispossessed that is also the base for an increasingly malign resistance force against the returned. This is the where the living cling to each other despite the fact that in many ways they are dead already. In this ghost story, the spirits have more to live for and the hollowed out, empty town is their home.
Charles Holland is a director and co-founder of Ordinary Architecture, and was previously a director of FAT Architecture.