Dirs. Louis Leterrier, Marcela Said; Omar Sy, Ludivine Sagnier, Soufiane Guerrab
[3 out of 4 stars]
When Omar Sy recently spoke with the New York Times about his dream role, he said, “If I were British, I would have said James Bond, but since I’m French, I said Lupin.” Sy’s wish has (sort of) come true — in Netflix’s new French show Lupin (2021-), Sy plays not Arsène Lupin himself, but Assane Diop, a man inspired by the so-called gentleman thief’s methods and style. Many other films and TV shows — like this 2004 version — have already been produced about Lupin, a popular French character created by Maurice Leblanc in 1905. While not known for his shooting ability or bloodshed, Lupin is suave and stealthy, blending in wherever he goes. As Diop, Sy adopts Lupin’s manner in his own exploits, which begin with stealing a necklace once owned by Marie Antoinette from the Louvre. However, over the five-episode series, our understanding of Diop deepens. He is seeking justice for his father (Fargass Assandé) who he believes was wrongly framed for robbery. In the meantime, he has made a sort of career out of robbery in order to stay afloat. At the same time, he is trying to balance his relationship with his ex-wife Claire (Ludivine Sagnier) and their son Raoul (Etan Simon). Meanwhile, as Diop’s trail of crimes spreads across Paris, Police Lieutenant Youssef Guedira (Soufiane Guerrab) begins connecting the dots between Diop’s technique’s and Lupin’s… The season ends on quite a cliffhanger, with part two coming this summer!
There are aspects of Lupin that is unbelievable or even a bit silly, least of all the premise that a 6’2” Black man would be able to move through the world without being noticed — although the show does try to explain this through the lens of class and the way that people of a certain social division do not care about those below them. Beyond that, there are certain features of the narrative that at times seem a bit over the top, like a car driving into the roof of the Louvre or Diop being able to break into apparently any home, sometimes without any explanation of how he got there. Unlike other action heroes, Diop does not have a team of tech wizards and government employees supporting him, yet he is able to execute similar feats. But Lupin’s greatest strength is that it is not overly self-aware, does not dwell on these moments, and barrels full-steam ahead, throwing itself entirely behind Diop as its debonair gentleman thief. Whereas Jason Bourne or James Bond films expect to be taken entirely seriously, Lupin feels like pure fun, bringing a measure of comedy to what is otherwise a breakneck action show. Entirely logical? Not at all. But wildly entertaining and funny? Certainly.
Truly the star of the show is Sy. I was excited for Lupin based on his performance in The Intouchables (2011) alone. As mentioned above, for the show to work, we have to believe that a 6’2” Black man would be able to move throughout the world — from janitor to wealthy art-buyer — without being remembered. As Trevor Noah explains, this seems impossible — except for Sy. His disguises are simple; aside from one scene, he does not use prosthetics or makeup. Rather, a hat or jacket suffice, and the rest is borne of Sy’s incredible physical abilities that make his movements seem almost like dancing. The way he carries himself, his manner of speaking, and his gestures all change when his disguises do, as he shifts between location and social class. Unlike Bond, the whole point is that Diop does not have any distinguishing characteristics — no gray Aston Martin, no martini “shaken not stirred,” no womanizing. As Sy himself said, “He’s a character who plays characters. For an actor, he’s the best.” Diop can blend in, or disappear, anywhere he likes, and Sy — with a great cheeky grin and beautifully expressive face — makes all that possible.
Lupin is expressly clear that this Diop (as a pseudo-Lupin) is not like Bond or Sherlock Holmes or another similar character before him. His masculinity is not built upon his exploits with women or his wealth, and he exhibits stereotypically feminine traits that I have not seen in action heroes before — for example, in one scene, he asserts, “I never joke about makeup.” Furthermore, Sy is a French actor of West African ancestry whose character particularly targets members of white French high society. The show uses the racism directed at Diop as part of its tricks, giving him an extra edge and the last laugh; he steals from people who, at various points, refer to him as “an ape” or whose husband stole diamonds from Belgian Congo. (In this scene, Diop dryly refers to that looting as “the good old days. Their loss, right?”) Here is a new hero to root for — not one whose suave nature and handsome smile are used to seduce women or take advantage of those in need, but one who figures out a way to use society’s biases against him for his own gain, for justice, and for revenge.