The haunting sight of Tignes’ Lac du Chevril shrouded in mist makes it easy to believe in the presence of ghosts.
The silence. The stillness of the water. The looming dam. The knowledge that deep on the lake bed lies the remains of a submerged village. This is a place with an eerie atmosphere all of its own.
No wonder, then, it was the perfect setting for spooky French TV drama The Returned (Les Revenants).
The fictional town of the series lies next to a dam, which is inexplicably draining. As the water level drops, it reveals unsettling scenes of dead animals and a church steeple. At the same time strange things are happening. Teenager Camille casually walks into her home 5 years after being killed in a coach crash – and apologises for being late. Simon, a bridegroom who seems to have killed himself on his wedding day, and Victor, a small boy who was murdered by burglars, wander into town. Strange marks start to appear on the bodies of the living and the dead, as gradually everyone realises what’s happening. As more and more people from the past arrive, it becomes clear they want to take something from the living.
If you were to dismiss the plot as just another zombie tale, you’d be wrong. The show is as subtle, atmospheric and stunning as its location. It’s a stylish, realistic and intensely creepy thriller, beautifully shot and accompanied by a mesmerising soundtrack by Scottish band Mogwai. When it first aired on Channel 4 in 2013, sending shivers down everyone’s spines despite it being summer, the programme immediately became a cult hit.
One of the most memorable scenes filmed in Tignes sees two characters trying to drive away from the town with a young boy in danger. But each time they exit a tunnel they find themselves in the same spot on the road over the dam, a mob of fixed-eyed undead trudging towards them. Taking the same road at night as the fog swirls around you, and a group of lost drunken souls pass by trying finding their way home, it’s not hard to imagine how they felt.
Now a second series of The Returned is in production; filming took place around the dam in October. Here’s a short trailer released by production company Canal+ to whet your appetite:
And here’s a picture of a scene filmed at Tignes dam in October. The road was closed for filming and lots of people will recognise the scene as they were waved past!
To further blur the lines of fact and fiction, dozens of locals were chosen to play the parts of extras, so you may spot some familiar faces as well as locations. Much of the plot is a closely-guarded secret, but it takes us to six months after the dead have disappeared. Police now protect the town but don’t believe the locals’ stories about who the invaders were. Relatives are still looking for their missing loved ones when a strange man called Berg arrives in town. He seems to be hiding something – then comes a new wave of resurrections. Filming finishes in March and the new series is eagerly anticipated late in 2015.
The fictional story of a dam revealing its secrets echoes the real-life history of Tignes’ own dam, created by the flooding of the old town of Tignes in 1952. For centuries it had been a close-knit farming community and the 76 families living there fought against their homes being submerged right up until the last moment, when water started pouring in.
During the 5 years it took to build, resentment grew at living under the increasingly large shadow of the thing that would eventually claim their homes. Engineers’ equipment was sabotaged and bulldozers broken. Police were brought in to evacuate families and their homes were blown up so they couldn’t return. Constructing the dam – still the highest in France, towering 160 metres above Les Brevieres – was difficult and dangerous, and 52 workers died. Many more met an untimely end digging out the tunnels linking the dam to its power stations further down the valley.
With so much death, anger and violence surrounding the dam’s creation, the suggestion in The Returned that “they will have their revenge” doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
The dam is drained for maintenance works every 10 years and depending on the snow melt it can empty in summer, uncovering the remains of the town. Last summer the mud revealed a surreal scene of destroyed homes, trees and bridges. As the water slowly ebbed away it could have been a scene right out of the TV series.
Fortunately, there were no such sinister consequences. But next time you’re near the dam and spot someone walking slowly towards you out of the mist, you’d be forgiven for holding your breath – just in case.
Alan Bell, of Tignes transfer firm Savoie Fare, shot these pictures of the lake when it was drained.
“When you go down there the first thing you notice is a forest of tree stumps, which looks strange straight away. It covers one side all the way down to the old bridge that crosses the Isere River, as it comes through the gorge from Val d’Isere. From the bridge you get a decent view across the dried up lake bed, and the remains of the village, all the way over to the dam towering out of the mud in the distance.
Following the path down, you start to stumble across the old abandoned buildings, the majority of which are now nothing more than mounds of deposited mud with sinkholes where the roofs have collapsed. There were a few that you could still get inside and have a look round. It was pretty eerie; creeping about in dark, damp mud-filled buildings that used to be people’s homes.
The occasional crumbling wall juts out creepily along the side of path. You can still walk over the old town bridge, and the old bachal is still on the side of the road. It’s amazing how much is actually preserved down there.”
Cecile Sellier, of Above & Beyond Language Services in Tignes, played a zombie in The Returned.
“I saw the ruins of the old town when EDF drained the dam and it was an emotional experience. I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like for the Tignards who were forced to leave their homes and watch, helpless, as the water level rose day after day.
After seeing that it was quite surreal to be involved in filming both series’ of The Returned as an extra. One of the first scenes we shot was on the dam – I was one of a group of people who come back to life after 30 years to find their village has been flooded. It’s interesting when you think about the history of Tignes: What would people who lived in the old town 70 years ago think if they came back today and saw a huge lake where their village used to be?”