Lupin (Netflix)

Lupin stars Omar Sy as Assane Diop, a Senegalese immigrant in France who models his life on the twentieth century thief Arsène Lupin. Known as the “gentleman burgler”, Assane has a gift as a chameleon, able to change his appearance and slip into various roles with ease whenever necessary. The sudden reappearance of a necklace that lead to his father’s incarceration and death spurs Assane to both steal it and prove his father’s innocence. Sy has charm to spare, the various heists are exciting to watch and every episode feels like a feature film. Lupin also addresses the racism that lead to the death of Assane’s father, and that he still deals with in modern France twenty five years later. Lupin is solidly entertaining, with a message that is as deftly delivered as it is timely. Highly recommended.

For those of you unfamiliar with Arsène Lupin (I count myself as one), the character was introduced by Maurice Leblanc in a series of short stories in the early twentieth century (1905, to be exact).  Nicknamed the “gentleman burglar“, the stories were immensely popular, spanning 17 novels and 39 novellas (per Wikipedia).  Further investigation into Lupin reveals him to have a longstanding impact on French culture, an aspect that plays an important role in the storyline of the series.

In Lupin, Assane Diop (Omar Sy) is as charming a thief as you could ever wish to meet.  His friendly, easygoing nature and warm smile are so disarming, Assane never needs to resort to smash-and-grab tactics to take what he wants.  In fact, he carries out his thefts unarmed, with an open hand, in plain view of other people.  Assane has the nimble hands of a magician, able to remove the handcuffs from an inmate.  He is a self-made chameleon, utilizing makeup and a latent acting ability to convincingly portray anyone in any number of normal professions (janitor, detective, IT worker, food delivery guy, etc.).  Even his ex-wife doesn’t know exactly who he is.  (She believes he’s just a pickpocket.)  Assane is incredibly smart and capable, as well.  His heists show a high-level of planning and attention to detail.  He’s also extremely adept at using computers and technology to his advantage, savvy enough that he can hack into a detective’s home security system and voice activated assistant Circé (similar to Amazon’s Alexa).  You could think of him as the entire cast of Ocean’s Eleven rolled into one, and you wouldn’t be far off.

Assane was orphaned at fourteen when his father Babakar committed suicide in prison, convicted for a crime he did not commit.  (Assane’s mother is not mentioned in the series that I can recall.)  The last gift Babakar left to Assane was a collection of the stories of Arsène Lupin, and they became the inspiration for his life as an adult.  The irony that Assane chose a profession his father would probably disapprove of didn’t escape me.  Playing armchair psychoanalyst, I’d reason that Assane decided to steal from the wealthy as a manner of revenge against the wealthy stealing his father from him.  Lupin does not fully explore this aspect of Assane, other than to show how his profession has led to his wife’s distrust and their eventual divorce.  Being a thief and a con man usually doesn’t mix with being a committed and open husband.

While Lupin is the story of a thief and con man, it also addresses the racial subtext of being a black man and an immigrant in modern France.  To its credit, Lupin addresses this subtext deftly, it infuses but does not overpower the story.  In less capable hands, the racial realities  addressed in Lupin could easily have turned the material into a grim and joyless viewing experience.  It’s a testament to the series creators, George Kay and François Uzan, that the story is topical without being overbearing, relying on the viewer to be intuitive enough to pick up on the casual racial attitudes Assane experiences, instead of explicitly spelling it out at every turn.  Like its namesake character, Lupin trades in nuance and subtlety.

At the risk of making Lupin sound like a very serious viewing experience, I should also mention that the show itself is incredibly fun.  The craft involved in each episode is at a feature film level,  both in front of the camera as well as behind it.  The episodes are so well put together, they could easily be shown in a movie theater alongside other great heist films like Baby Driver or Ocean’s Eleven.  Veteran director Louis Leterrier (Now You See Me) sets the tone in the first three episodes, with Marcela Said bringing the series to an exciting cliffhanger in the last two.  The action pops, the editing is sharp, the writing is clever and the music propels the story with a mashup of symphonics and hip-hop.

In Lupin, Assane fashions himself as a latter-day Arsène Lupin.  Assane is smooth, charming, cunning and fearless.  The initial episode plays as well as any modern heist picture I could think of.  When we first see Assane, he seems like a lower class, workaday character.  He works midnights for the janitorial staff for the Louvre, mopping the floor in front of famous works of art.  The following morning, he tries to make nice with his ex-wife Claire (Ludivine Sagnier), who still loves him but does not want to be romantically involved with him any longer.  While talking to her, Assane creates an origami flower using only one hand.  Claire rebuffs his offer of child support, only to find the money she rejected and the flower in her coat pockets when walking home.  Assane, clearly, is not what he seems.  The series does an excellent job of showing how Assane is repeatedly underestimated by everyone, starting with the theft that unfolds in the first episode.

A seemingly long-lost necklace worn by Marie Antoinette has been restored and will be auctioned at the Louvre for charity.  Assane has been familiarizing himself with the Louvre’s security systems and procedures while working there as a janitor. He owes money to a local loan shark, and cleverly uses his debt to recruit him and his crew to help carry out his plan.  Well, the part of the plan Assane is willing to share with them.

Assane’s plan requires his accomplices to first assume roles as janitors and then security staff. While they are getting into position, Assane poses as a wealthy businessman (worth 576 million  Euros!) who will participate in the auction.  Assane makes the highest bid for the necklace (60 million Euros!) and insists on being able to inspect it afterwards.  When the necklace is finally in his hands, his accomplices turn on him and take it for themselves.  In a chaotic turn of events, the getaway car crashes through the Louvre’s glass pyramid.  (Note to self: a Ferrari was not a discrete choice for a getaway car.)  The necklace is recovered by the police and Assane is allowed to leave the scene of the crime.  But was the necklace actually recovered?

In a storytelling fashion that reminded me of Ocean’s Eleven, we see that Assane actually swapped the necklace for a fake when his fellow thieves turned on him.  (He figured they would do so, and planned accordingly.)  After the chaos is over, Assane nonchalantly slipped back into his role as a janitor and took the necklace out with the trash (which is never inspected by security).

Stealing the necklace has personal significance for Assane, since that was the crime that his father was originally charged with.  Assane’s longtime friend (and fence for stolen goods) Benjamin (Antoine Gouy), examines the necklace, to see if the purported backstory of its reconstruction is real.  Antoine confirms that the jewels in the necklace had not been tampered with at all, meaning that the story given for the necklace’s reconstruction after a twenty-five year search for its jewels is a lie.  This sets Assane on a quest to discern whether his father actually stole the necklace or not, and if he didn’t, why he was framed.

Lupin lays out very plainly that one of the reasons for why Assane is so successful at being a thief is that he is routinely overlooked within French society.  As an immigrant from Senegal, members of the upper class never believe that Assane is clever enough to steal from them, a judgement borne out of racist (and classist) attitudes that he willfully exploits.  He is one of the invisible members of French society, nameless and disposable, someone who works in jobs the naturalized citizens no longer want.  This societal disregard allows Assane to operate practically unnoticed, in broad daylight.

Lupin also makes the argument that immigrants hold the culture of their adopted country in higher regard than its naturalized citizens.  Babakar and Assane’s appreciation for the stories of Arsène Lupin is symbolic of their love and appreciation for their adopted country.  They see Lupin as an aspirational role model, a gentleman who uses his intelligence to achieve his goals.  I don’t believe it is a coincidence that Detective Youssef Guedira, likely a second generation son of immigrants, is also well-versed in the stories of Lupin.  His continued insistence on the necklace thief being influenced by Lupin is regularly dismissed by the Francophile cops on the case, Captain Laugier and Commissioner Dumont.

One of Lupin’s major themes is what fathers do for their children.  While most parents would do anything for their children, most have boundaries that they would not cross.  Babakar is seen as a good father to Asane, teaching him the importance of proper spelling and how to be gracious when doing a job for people who don’t like you.  In contrast, Pelligrini is a ruthless businessman who will stop at nothing to keep himself and his family living in luxury.  In later episodes, we learn that the Pelligrini faked the theft of the necklace so that he would receive an insurance payout large enough to prevent his empire from going bankrupt.  Commissioner Dumont, the detective who investigated the original disappearance, took money from members of the criminal underworld to support his family and give them a comfortable life.

Hubert Pelligrini is the main villain in the story.  He is some sort of tycoon, with enough wealth to be able to influence practically every part of society, from the media to law enforcement.  Lupin shows how someone with the money, racist attitudes and self-centered belief system of Pelligrini can corrupt society.  Pelligrini’s outward racism is tolerated by his wife and daughter Juliette because he controls the purse strings for their expensive lifestyles.  Worse still, they are knowingly complicit in his crimes.  Pelligrini has his wife convince Babakar to sign a confession to the robbery. Juliette, Pelligrini’s daughter, refuses to stand up to her father over revelations that he funded terrorists because without his support, her charity would not be able to function.

Lupin depicts the negative impact of the super-rich on society via two supporting characters: Gabriel Dumont and Fabienne Bériot.   Dumont was a good cop, and did not believe that Babakar stole the necklace.  However, Pelligrini promised to fast-track Dumont’s career in return for not following through with his investigation into the theft of the necklace.  Dumont was promoted and wound up living in a nice house with a beautiful wife, but effectively became Pelligrini’s inside man in law enforcement.  He effectively sold his soul for a promotion.  Bériot was a journalist whose career was destroyed when she tried to reveal one of the ways Pelligrini made his money.  She was investigating the accusations that he sold arms to terrorists who later attacked and killed French citizens working at the embassy in Kuala Lumpur.  Pelligrini sued her for libel, driving her bankrupt and destroying her career in the process.  As we see, the accusations were true, captured on video tape.  They never came to light because Pelligrini was able to leverage his wealth to sue her into submission.

If I’m making it sound as if Lupin is stating in no uncertain terms that all white people are evil, that is not the case.  Assane’s closest friends, his ex-wife Claire and business partner Benjamin are both white.  They all met in an exclusive boarding school, where all three had a strong dislike towards their arrogant, privilege-wielding male classmates.  Claire and Benjamin see Assane as an equal, while others view him as a lesser human being and disposable.  Lupin shows that racism is a choice people make on how they interact with others different from themselves on a regular basis.  The outcome of these choices may be overt or subtle, but in either case, they are deliberate. 

Omar Sy is the lead and star of this series, and served as producer. In interviews, he described Lupin as his dream role. He wears the part of Assane Diop like a well-tailored suit, and the role lets him showcase his many acting talents. I remember seeing him in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), as Bishop, a mutant who absorb and redirect energy. Sy/Bishop didn’t have any memorable lines in that film (maybe none at all?), and I felt that he was included as a way to attract a French audience to the movie. Sy left a much stronger impression with me in The Intouchables (2011) and Burnt (2015) and I hadn’t seen him in anything else until Lupin. I’ve heard Sy is a big star in France, but international stardom rarely translates in the US. That should change with Lupin, provided American audiences can get past the one inch tall barrier of subtitles.

The triumph of Lupin is how it shows Assane succeeding in an environment that is rigged against him at every turn.  At its core, Lupin is a story of the underdog who triumphs.  I definitely was rooting for the underdog every step of the way, and I can’t wait for season 2. In a way, Lupin reminded me of The Queen’s Gambit, in how it resurrects something that seemingly is irrelevant to modern society.  For The Queen’s Gambit, it is chess.  For Lupin, it is the stories of Arsène Lupin, and of reading.  I appreciated seeing characters in Lupin immersed in a good book.  And not an e-book, an actual, physical, hardcover book.  While Lupin is much more than a story about characters who enjoy reading, for Babakar and Assane and Guedira, reading is the path to enlightenment, and that is a sentiment I can always get behind.

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