Netflix's Lupin excellently reboots and adapts the Arsène Lupin stories in the early 1900s while updating them for the 21st century. Starring Omar Sy (Jurassic World, X-Men: Days of Future Past) and with a pilot episode directed by Louis Leterrier (who directed the MCU Incredible Hulk film) it's the first eminently bingeable shows of 2021. Also the first French series to debut in Netflix's Top 10, it's a huge hit, making it one of the year's first must-see shows. But unlike other Lupin adaptations, such as the popular manga/anime series Lupin the Third, our protagonist is not related to the gentleman thief himself but is merely inspired by the books. In so doing, it delivers on the heart of what makes gentleman thief capers so much fun while providing a fresh and somewhat woke, update.
The Show's Literary Pedigree
Omar Sy plays Assane Diop, the son of a Senegalese immigrant who two decades ago was framed for the theft of a diamond necklace once owned by Marie Antoinette. When it shows up for auction at the Louvre in Paris, he assembles a crew and the heist is on– to steal the necklace that holds the key to the mystery of who framed his father, and all signs point to the necklace's owners the Pellegrinis, one of France's most powerful families. The show skips back and forth in time to our present where he is a master thief who uses Lupin as inspiration for his crimes and to his often tragic past.
Right before being arrested, his father gifted him a collected edition of Maurice Leblanc's Lupin stories. Dealing with the loss of his father, the lonely teen becomes obsessed with Lupin, and the idea that his father is sending him secret messages in the stories. He becomes friends with a girl named Claire whom we see through the show as their relationship grows, eventually ending with a child and an eventual separation. The show's other masterstroke is that Assane continues to try to bond with his son by gifting him the same Lupin stories.
But what really works is the show takes something specific — the gentleman thief aspect — and makes it universal by showing a man obsessed with his work, his own psychodrama, his past, and how it hurts his ability to find happiness and fulfillment or keep a normal relationship with the people he loves. The show might get a little trite and silly without this strong beating heart at the center of it. And Omar Sy delivers an incredible, layered performance here.
How do you take a character so iconic to so many people and make them work? Well, if you're making something like Paddington, you don't. But what you can get away with within a children's narrative in a sort of alternate universe can't work here. The trappings of top hats and monocles are silly, so you only get those in sort of loving homages. But they aren't meant seriously, and the characters even comment on how silly they are.
Instead, this series takes an interesting look at this. While the original Lupin (and Lupin III) were masters of disguise, so is Diop. However, his best defense is using race and class to his advantage. Yes, there is a strong undercurrent of implication that no one recognizes him because high-class French people think all Black people look the same. Diop also uses this on several occasions to rattle his adversaries, pointedly interrogating them when they say something that can be taken as a racist microaggression and making them fumble and fluster. With them on the defensive, he's able to manipulate them more fully.
But even more subtly, he's playing up a class angle which is a nice fresh take on the "gentleman" thief. Because he is not of high status, his disguises are almost always of low-status people, mostly in working-class jobs. And again, because no one suspects the janitorial staff, the IT guy, the deli delivery guy, etc, he's able to slip past the police.
Viewing Tips: Don't Binge Lupin All at Once
One piece of advice to enjoy it? Do not watch the dubbed version. The show is in French, as it should be, and the nuance and beauty of Sy's delivery is part of the charm. The English voice actors are fine. But the French dialogue is so vastly superior. Second, the first season will be ten episodes, with the first five available on Netflix. I wish I had not watched the fifth episode, as it ends on a rather upsetting cliffhanger. And while we should be getting the next five episodes later this year, my advice is to watch the first four and enjoy them immensely. The first episode– with the Louvre and the jewelry heist– is undoubtedly the best. If you're not sold on whether you'll like this or not, watch just the first one and decide. Also, it's worth noting that this show may be triggering for some people, especially around issues of suicide or child endangerment. Be forewarned if these things may upset you and make you unable to enjoy this show.
But for the rest of us? Bon Appetit!