Review: Lupin updates classic French gentleman thief for the 21st century
Netflix has kicked off 2021 with a bang, thanks to its new series, Lupin, starring French actor and comedian Omar Sy. This delightful contemporary reimagining of a classic character in French detective fiction, Arsène Lupin—a gentleman thief and master of disguise who was essentially the French equivalent of Sherlock Holmes—is a massive hit. According to Deadline Hollywood, Lupin is on track to top 70 million households in its first 28 days of release, beating out two other recent Netflix smash hits, Bridgerton (63 million households) and The Queen’s Gambit (62 million households).
(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)
As I’ve written previously, Arsène Lupin is the creation of Maurice Leblanc, who based the character partly on a French burglar/anarchist. Leblanc was also familiar with the gentleman thief featured in the work of Octave Mirbeau as well as E.W. Hornung’s famed gentleman thief, A.J. Raffles, and he also knew about Rocambole, a character whose adventures were recounted in a series of stories published between 1857 and 1870 by Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail.
Relentlessly pursued by a detective named Ganimard, Lupin is captured stealing a woman’s jewels on board a ship. Although he is imprisoned, he ultimately escapes before standing trial and goes on to pull off many other colorful heists. In a June 1906 story, “Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late,” Lupin meets the aging detective, although for legal reasons—Arthur Conan Doyle objected—the name was changed to “Herlock Sholmes” when the story was included in the first book of collected stories. The Sholmes character appeared in a few more stories later on. All told, Leblanc wrote 17 novels and 39 novellas featuring Lupin.
The Netflix series is the creation of Louis Leterrier, who directed the 2013 heist thriller Now You See Me, in which a band of magicians pulls off ingenious robberies. So it’s easy to see why he might be drawn to this project. Per the official premise: “As a teenager, Assane Diop’s life was turned upside down when his father died after being accused of a crime he didn’t commit. 25 years later, Assane will use Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar as his inspiration to avenge his father.”
We meet the Senegal-born Assane (Sy) while he’s working as a janitor at the Louvre, surrounded by artwork worth millions. Currently on exhibit is a jeweled necklace that once belonged to Marie Antoinette, in advance of a public auction to sell the piece to the highest bidder. It was this recently recovered necklace that his father, Babakar (Fargass Assandé ) was falsely accused of stealing by wealthy financier Hubert Pellegrini (Hervé Pierre). Assane is out for revenge for his father’s eventual suicide. After duping local gang members into pulling a decoy heist, Diop disguises himself as a wealthy potential buyer and crashes the auction—and ultimately walks away with the necklace.
That’s just the beginning of the story, as we learn more about Assane’s history—including his relationship with childhood sweetheart, Claire (Ludivine Sagnier), the mother of his son—and why he has modeled his schemes on the exploits of Arsène Lupin. Elements drawn from various Lupin stories are cleverly woven throughout the series, most obviously “The Queen’s Necklace”—the title of the pilot episode, which incorporates several plot elements of the original story and also provides the inspiration for the name of Assane and Claire’s son: Raoul (Etan Simon). Captain Romain Laugier (Vincent Londez) and another detective, Youssef Guedira (Soufiane Guerrab) are part of the team investigating the Louvre heist, and both share traits of Ganimard.
Guedira is also a Lupin uber-fan; he’s the only one in the department to notice the similarities between Diop’s work and the fictional gentleman burglar (“the method, the panache, the style, the talent!”). His co-worker, Lt. Sofia Belkacem (Shirine Boutella), is unimpressed with this insight: “What’s next? D’Artagnan and the Three Little Pigs?” Other Lupin stories clearly referenced—and often explicitly mentioned—in the series include “813,” “Seven of Hearts,” “Arsène Lupin in Prison,” “The Escape of Arsène Lupin,” “The Mysterious Traveler,” and “The Hollow Needle,” the latter two of which feature heavily in the final episode of the season.
The series is briskly paced, without sacrificing character development, capturing the essence of each character in deft strokes. The cast delivers strong performances across the board, most notably Anne Benoit as disgraced journalist Fabienne Beriot, who went after Pellegrini for his corruption and failed. Now living alone in poverty with her little dog (aptly named J’Accuse, who barks whenever he hears the name “Pellegrini”), she ends up joining forces with Assane in hopes of finally bringing down the financier. Benoit only appears in a single episode, but her arc is among the most powerful.
But it’s Sy’s Assane who anchors the series as the quintessential gentleman thief for the 21st century. Assane knows how to exploit racial stereotypes for the purpose at hand: his skin color renders him invisible as a janitor at the Louvre, while making him stand out when he poses as a young multimillionaire at the auction. (“You underestimated me,” Assane says to an antagonist at one point. “You saw me, but you didn’t really look.”) He’s charming, suave, well-read, and very, very smart, yet never effete, since Sy also imbues the character with athleticism and a confident physicality. He’s equally at home ordering fine wine in a fancy restaurant or going toe-to-toe with a would-be assassin.
Honestly, the only flaw with this first season is that it is far too short—a mere five episodes—and ends with one of those maddening cliffhangers that Netflix is becoming notorious for. Given Lupin‘s smashing success, I’m pretty confident we’ll be seeing more of Sy’s enchanting gentleman thief in the future.
Lupin is currently streaming on Netflix, and with just five episodes, it’s an easy binge. In French with English subtitles.