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Friday, Sept. 22, 2006
Reunion with the dearly departed
By KAORI SHOJI
In "Les Revenants" the dead come back to life in a way that turns all preconceived notions about zombie movies upside down, leaving the viewer quietly stunned. The opening shot shows hundreds of these revived individuals walking slowly through the streets of a French industrial town, dressed in light, pastel-colored summer clothes. They don't speak or gesticulate, and certainly don't do that zombie stagger, but just casually move along as if on some kind of exercise event sponsored by a senior citizens' home.
From subsequent news reports, we learn that all over France millions of dead people have returned to life, all of them "recently buried" in the last decade and the majority over 60 years old. In this town, thousands have been taken into protective custody by the local authorities in accordance with "U.N. Guidelines" on dealing with refugees, which is how "the Revived" are ultimately regarded. Beds and showers are installed in the community center, the cafeteria is opened and Red Cross workers move to and fro among the elderly.
This astonishingly mature film was directed by Robin Campillo, who had worked mainly as an editor/writer on various films before this directorial debut. His most famous credit is cowriter on "Time Out," a droll masterpiece about the effects of overwork on a businessman's psyche, and a brilliant commentary on the nature of white-collar work in modern society.
With "Les Revenants," Campillo brings his somewhat sardonic world view and skill for societal analysis to the issue of death and bereavement in the 21st century. The Revived, having been herded en masse into shelters, are immediately sucked into the vortex of bureaucracy. Examinations, investigations and meetings go on forever. There are no joyful reunions with loved ones, no acrimonious scenes between old enemies. Friends and family show up at the community center with identification papers and receive counseling on dealing with the Revived. The Revived are questioned and their personal histories taken down, and then interviewed for possible job openings. Emotions and sentiment become swallowed up in the need to "deal with" the situation, and it seems that everyone's sanity depends on how long they can keep shuffling papers.
Some of the living do let their feelings show, however, like Rachel (Geraldine Pailhas), who lost her boyfriend Mathieu (Jonathan Zaccai) in a car accident two years back. For the longest time Rachel walks in circles around the community center and then attends meetings. She had spent her bereavement in a cocoon of inconsolable sadness, and now the prospect of facing Mathieu in the flesh again is just too daunting.
A middle-aged couple who lost their 6-year-old son some years previously goes through the same thing, although the father, Isham (Djemel Barek), has fewer misgivings than his wife, Veronique (Catherine Samie), who cannot bring herself to love her child all over again. The doctors report that the Revived have faulty memories and are incapable of real, here-and-now conversations -- all they can do is repeat fragments of speech they had uttered in their previous lives. In a sense, they're just as dead as they had been when lying in their graves, and Veronique realizes this painful truth faster than the others. Not once does she touch her son, or even crack a smile.
When Rachel is finally physically reunited with Mathieu, her face registers a quiet determination to re-enact their past relationship at whatever cost. Mathieu says little and doesn't seem to remember very much about their days together; he often leaves her in the middle of the night to go "work" at his old job as a consultant, though the documents he writes up and submits to his former boss are little more than gibberish.
"Les Revenants" examines the ability of society to accept and coexist with the ultimate outsider. According to Campillo, society fails, despite its good intentions. After the initial shock wears off, economic and financial considerations come to the fore: Should the Revived get their old jobs back? What about compensation for the living who had taken over those jobs? What about taxes?
On a personal level, people like Rachel and Veronique who actually choose to live together with the Revived once more (many families just can't handle it) unwittingly see and treat their once-deceased loved ones as alien guests from outer space who could, at any moment, turn violent or inflict harm. At least with zombies you know what to expect. In "Les Revenants," Campillo keeps us guessing at every turn and as a result generates far more fear.