Lupin Review, Season 1
By Hector DeJeanFebruary 22, 2021
It’s appropriate that the Netflix series Lupin, a show named after a master of disguise, could be described in many different ways, with few of those descriptions being entirely accurate. Lupin has apparently proved more popular even than the previous Netflix phenomenon The Queen’s Gambit, but it’s also harder to sum up. It’s inspired by the stories and novels starring “gentleman burglar” Arsene Lupin, written by Maurice Leblanc, but it’s not based directly on any of them. It’s a crime drama, but it’s also an immigrant story, and it shifts between parts that are grim and scenes that are quite funny. It also takes place in Paris, which is reason alone to watch it—Paris is something of its own genre, and probably has been since before Victor Hugo. The show manages to keep a lot of balls in the air, but if there’s a single reason to watch it, a facet that really stands out, it’s that it recasts the familiar takes-the-law-into-their-own-hands protagonist and gives that role to an outsider.
French actor and comedian Omar Sy stars as Assane Diop, the son of a Senegalese immigrant who models his illicit career on that of Arsene Lupin, but while Lupin started out in life with money and breeding, and flouted the law as a way to keep life interesting, Assane enters the world of modern Paris with far fewer advantages. His father Babakar (Fargass Assande) was the chauffeur and servant of a family whose patriarch, Hubert Pellegrini (Herve Pierre), framed the immigrant for the theft of a priceless necklace; Babakar subsequently died in prison, leaving his teenage son to fend for himself. Fortunately, a mysterious donor gets Assane into an elite school, and he starts figuring out how to turn himself into the kind of man he’ll need to be to 1) rip off the wealthy and 2) avenge his father. There’s also a third reason for creating a more elegant and dashing persona for himself, and her name is Claire, another student at the school and someone who becomes his romantic partner in adulthood (where she is played by Ludivine Sagnier), and eventually, the mother of his son. And then she’s his ex, though they stay on good terms.
The five episodes on Netflix borrow names, locations, treasures, and methods from the Lupin stories, some of which are available at Project Gutenberg. If you’ve never read any, they’re wonderful tales of a roguish yet charming hero who puts together elaborate cons in order to swindle people who pretty much deserve it—with Lupin or someone else explaining at the end how the sleight-of-hand was carried out, and the valuables transferred from a vault or locked manor into Lupin’s pocket. Like those stories, each episode of the Netflix series is almost its own little standalone caper, with an elaborate deception organized by Lupin’s disciple Assane, and a post-game play-by-play to show the audience what actually happened.
As I said at the start, there’s a lot more going on in this series, which mixes some headlines from the real world with familiar crime series elements and the literary fantasia of a “gentleman burglar.” “Gentleman burglar” ranks alongside “Las Vegas heist organizer” and “Impossible Missions Force troubleshooter” and “bat-costumed crime fighter” as a plausible career option; that Assane—or anyone—has actually turned the example of Arsene Lupin into a real, actual profession is a sign that, despite the heavier elements of the show, at least a partial suspension of disbelief may be required.
But what Lupin indicates about those other rule-bending heroes is that they offer an escape mainly to members of the establishment. James Bond is an Eton-educated Englishman serving his government, and Jack Reacher is a U. S. Army veteran who knows when to defer to law enforcement. It’s less likely that an impoverished Senegalese immigrant would see themselves in the same roles, no matter what their skill set. What’s the point of keeping society going when society only shares its bounty with others? In Lupin, a young man with no advantages at all (except perhaps…literacy, and that donor who got him into prep school) builds himself into a criminal mastermind, albeit one with a code. That code, obviously, isn’t the same as fortunate son Arsene, stealing objets d’art to display his adoration of them. It’s one that is more indifferent to the social order, and more sympathetic to the downtrodden and the voiceless.
In the first episode, we learn of Assane, his father, the Pellegrini family, Claire, Assane and Claire’s son Raoul, and the jewel-encrusted necklace now back in the possession of the Pellegrinis somehow. Through a byzantine and at one point improbable scheme, Assane steals the necklace—from the Louvre, no less, because when you’re going to commit a crime in Paris, you go big. (“The Queen’s Necklace” is the title of one of Leblanc’s stories, though his account of the theft was quite different.) As Assane, Omar Sy gives a terrific performance while earning at least one strike against his believability: Like Arsene, Assane is supposed to be a guy who can blend into a crowd, whose face no one can quite remember. The handsome Sy, on the other hand, is a very tall, broad-shouldered man with prominent features, who would stand out anywhere, in Paris and probably even Senegal. (Like Assane, Sy is the son of a Senegalese immigrant.) The show goes to some lengths to propose how Sy keeps evading detection even though it’s as if Chris Hemsworth in gazillion-dollar tailored suits is walking through the room and no one seems to notice. One could say that Sy’s background as a sketch comedian gives him an advantage in depicting the various low-life Parisians impersonated by Assane.
Assane, we learn, is a master hacker, an ID thief, and a forger of digital information; he plays games with underworld gangsters, he crashes expensive auctions, he regularly outwits the authorities, he does all kinds of awesome shit. AND, he’s got a family, or at least he had one. It’s a lot to take in, though it’s not the least plausible crime show setup in TV history (especially if we’re going to call Knight Rider a crime show). Keep in mind, this is Paris. We Americans are tourists here. Just take in the sights, have some wine, and let yourself relax into the Gallic vibe.
Things get grittier in episode 2, when Assane has to break into a prison (and break out again) to speak with a dying man who holds a clue to his father’s death. Again, how Assane escapes is ingenious but also eyebrow-raising, and I wouldn’t recommend his method to anyone who actually hopes to live through such an adventure. Also, do prisoners in France really get coffee-makers in their cells? I’ve heard that the incarcerated in America don’t even get chewing gum.
As we continue to get vignettes that fill in Assane’s past, his mission in the present proceeds forward, and in episode three he decides it’s time to kidnap the cop who investigated his father’s ‘crime,’ and try out some high-tech interrogation techniques. All along, another cop called Youssef Guedira has been putting the pieces together (descriptions of the necklace thief, fake IDs taken from Leblanc’s books) and realizes that the Lupin stories are the clue to everything. As Guedira, actor Soufiane Guerrab is one of the many highlights of the series, a clever cop whose literary insights into the crimes around him are brushed off by his colleagues as nerdy wastes of time, yet he keeps at it, and the audience is rooting for this underdog because we know he’s right—even though proving himself to the other cops would mean nabbing Assane, which would mean the end of the show.
By episode 4, Assane has made an alliance with a disgraced journalist (Anne Benoit), who came within a hair of exposing the Pellegrinis years earlier. While it’s fine to see Assane pal around with someone, this episode may be the most outlandish of all—Assane wants to go on a national TV show wearing a disguise to play a videotape that incriminates Hubert Pellegrini, and he gets ambushed by the same people that he’s been one step ahead of for the whole series. I had some concerns about this one, even though, as with the others, it’s extremely enjoyable—a special highlight is going back to seeing how Assane and Claire met as teenagers.
Finally, we get to a Hitchcockian moment of tension aboard a train in episode 5, when Assane—heading out of town with Claire and Raoul—realizes that a killer hired by the Pellegrinis is sitting a few seats behind him. How can he take down the assassin while still giving his family the holiday they deserve? And will he ever avenge his father? Will he make it to the Arsene Lupin festival on the Normandy coast? All I can say is, Netflix is already working on a second season.
For all of the cinematic flourishes and lapses in believability, Lupin really works. It’s got a great cast, the undisputed best setting in the world, and Assane’s determination to prove the innocence of Babakar—yet another immigrant who got exploited by the billionaires of the world—makes the story relatable. The literary references don’t hurt, and the quality of the series is polished to a high sheen—steadily roving cameras, excellent soundtrack, editing that enhances the transitions from Assane’s past to his present. If it occasionally borders on the far-fetched, that’s because it comes from a tradition of wish-fulfillment: Exciting crime tales in which law-abiding protagonists get a chance to go outside of the law to satisfy their need for order, and they get praised instead of condemned for it. Assane’s particular sense of order has its roots outside of the West, yet his wish gets fulfilled all the same, regardless of his origins.
Lupin is produced by Gaumont Television and Netflix, and it’s available to stream now!