The image of le barrage, French for “dam,” is central to the second episode. It was already introduced to us in the first episode as the site of the horrific school bus crash that decimated the village. Now this huge structure becomes the location for another violent death, just as a pair of engineers begin to fret about the receding water level there.
The structure imposes its majestic scale on the landscape, a massive human achievement of architecture over nature. It also serves as a comment on the political atmosphere at the time Les Revenants was shown in France.
Just as a dam is a structure designed to prevent water — a force of nature — from surging onto land, France at the time was undergoing political strife over immigration. Although Les Revenants was not first broadcast in France until 2012, it was based on a 2004 film by the same title, released in the UK as The Returned. In these years France was fighting to come to grips with its immigration policy and the changing face of what it means to be French.
Many would place the opening note of this discussion earlier, with the emergence of the iconic soccer star Zinédine Yazid Zidane. Of Berber descent, he grew up in Marseille. His father Smaïl worked as a warehouseman at a department store, while his mother was a housewife. Zidane was central to France’s winning its first and only World Cup in 1998, when they were also hosts. That French team counted many players from non-French backgrounds, such as Bernard Lama, Patrick Vieira, Youri Djorkaeff, Marcel Desailly, Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram, Christian Karembeu, and David Trezeguet. The “new France” simultaneously brought pride and xenophobia to the nation. Despite becoming world champions, opinions were polarized. An entry in Wikipedia states:
“The 1998 FIFA World Cup-winning team was celebrated and praised for inspiring pride and optimism about the prospects for the “French model” of social integration. Of the 23 players on the team, the squad featured players who could trace their origins to Armenia, Algeria, Guadeloupe, New Caledonia, Argentina, Ghana, Senegal, Italy, French Guiana, Portugal and Martinique.
” … In recent years, critics on the far right of the French political spectrum have taken issue with the proportional under-representation of ethnic white Frenchmen within the team. National Front politician Jean-Marie Le Pen protested in 1998 that the Black, Blanc, Beur team that won the World Cup did not look sufficiently French. In 2005, French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut caused controversy by remarking to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that despite its earlier slogan, “the French national team is in fact black-black-black.” He later apologized for the comments declaring that they were not meant to be offensive.”
Is it a coincidence that in light of these controversies, subsequent race riots, and attempts to ban Islamic garb in France, that Les Revenants focuses on a slowly failing dam and a village’s struggle whether to welcome or expel people that are at the same time both familiar to them and repugnant?