This January, Netflix revealed to an unsuspecting world the latest and most cunning of its original programming; it stalked hit sensations such as Money Heist and The Queen’s Gambit in the shadows, eventually surpassing them in projected views (70m+) and thus gaining the upper hand in the cadence of its titular master of all things sneaky. No, it’s not a new season of Selling Sunset; it is, of course, the comedic French language crime-thriller Lupin, starring the irresistible Omar Sy of films such as the hot water bottle masterpiece Intouchables (2011), for which he became the first ever Black recipient of the César Best Actor award, Samba (2014), and Jurassic World (2015).
Lupin, created by François Uzan and British writer George Kay, takes the eminent French tales of Maurice Leblanc’s 1905 creation Arsène Lupin, gentleman-cambrioleur (gentleman-burglar), a sort of twisted, French-ified Sherlock Holmes, and produces a modern-day Parisian narrative centred around second-generation Senegalese immigrant, and Arsène Lupin fanatic, Assane Diop (Sy). Over five episodes at approximately 45 minutes each, we follow Diop’s footsteps in a quest to unearth and avenge the mysterious death of his father, during which we see him implement methods of deception and investigation inspired by Leblanc’s novels.
Lupin isn’t Netflix’s greatest ever series, but for a crime-mystery, it’s a good one, punctured with pockets of that famous French wit. The jewel in the pilfered crown is Sy’s reliably captivating performance in which he hammers home yet another example of his indomitable charm, palpability of emotional depth, and an ingrained natural ability to animate the two-dimensional text of a script with penetrating sarcasm and flawless timing. The outcome is the creation a caricature the audience has no choice but to succumb to with a laugh they don’t want people to see.
However, while Sy is undeniably the show’s blazing and obscuring star, his success is bolstered by solid performances from fellow cast members including Ludivine Sagnier, who plays Claire, Assane’s ex-partner and mother of their son, with both tenderness and fiery resolve, Vincent Garanger as the corrupt yet simultaneously pathetic detective Gabrielle Dumont, and Hervé Pierre who brings a palpably slimy quality to wealthy public figure-come-criminal Hubert Pellegrini. Lupin also showcases standout portrayals from young rising stars including Etan Simon, Mamadou Haidara, and Ludmilla Makowski.
The show similarly impresses in its visuality. Straying from the usual romanticised and artistically stylised images of Paris that we often see in films and TV series, Lupin uses drone shots and shadowy low-key lighting to produce a quintessentially opulent Netflix aesthetic that’s reliably easy on the eye. It’s slick; it’s cool; it’s dramatic, and thus it’s absolutely in keeping with both the mysterious ambiance of its narrative and the polish of its street-smart protagonist.
“However, the true essence of the show is a simple story, one of an ordinary French man ̶ real life ordinary, not white, centrist ordinary ̶ striving to manage his ordinary, imperfect family life, while possessing an extraordinary talent.”
At times, this Netflix aesthetic may look a little too high budget, and too clean to communicate a back-alley portrayal of crime in Paris. However, Lupin is no back-alley story – rather, the gentleman-cambrioleur hides unremittingly in plain sight, within the shiny exterior of France’s upper echelons. Yes, postcard portraits of the Eiffel Tower are replaced with more realist walks along the Seine under clusters of thick grey cloud, or meetings within the dreary barricades of the city’s peripheral banlieue estates, yet, somehow, the illustrious magic of France’s metropole nonetheless glistens through.
Lupin’s plot itself may not be wholly unique; the master of disguise conman figure is by no means an untrodden path. Rather, unlike its crafty hero, it is something recognisable from films such as The Mask of Zorro (1998), Ocean’s Eleven (2001), and Sherlock Holmes (2009) to name a few. However, Lupin’s redeeming feature is its refreshing refusal to centre the story around a white, middle-class male, inverting the identity of Leblanc’s hero to present one with immigrant heritage. Assane is by no means the perfect role model. As a father he is flawed at times, yet it is important, taking France’s tumultuous history with race relations, that a Black man, a second-generation immigrant, living in Europe’s second most multicultural city, is portrayed in such a way that he can be idolised, rather than traditional representations that have a tendency to lean into stigmas of either threat or victim.
Lupin proves an awareness of France’s racial hostilities: the context of Assane’s pursuit revolves around the needless sacrifice of his father Babakar’s life as part of a criminal blueprint laid down by Paris’s wealthy white elite. However, the true essence of the show is a simple story, one of an ordinary French man ̶ real life ordinary, not white, centrist ordinary ̶ striving to manage his ordinary, imperfect family life, while possessing an extraordinary talent.
Lupin may not be the most ground-breaking crime-thriller you’ll see this year. However, if Netflix’s promised trademark gloss and exhilaration doesn’t quite seize your Friday night attention, the uniqueness of the show’s hero, emboldened by Omar Sy’s immutable charm, soon will.
Lupin is available on Netflix in full.
Words by Joe Harris