C’est ‘Lupin’

The caper series, which cleverly re-invents a classic French character, could use a stronger supporting cast

The French-language caper series Lupin, now streaming on Netflix, is a flawed yet heady trifle.

The five-episode series has rightly earned comparisons to smart heist films like Oceans 11. It opens with a slick set piece that finds the dapper Assane Diop (Omar Sy) executing a thrillingly complicated plan to steal a diamond necklace at the Louvre as part of his revenge plot.

The show’s charms are almost completely due to Sy. He’s a gentleman burglar who wants to avenge his father, framed for theft. This gives Assane noble motives, although Sy’s charisma is such that he hardly needs them.

Forget Emily in Paris. Just give me more Assane striding purposefully down les rues in trenchcoats and trainers, deploying his winning grin, or hatching plots while sitting in a giant mask chair. But there is far more to digest here than the banter, disguises and swoon-worthy Paris cityscapes that no doubt contributed to Lupin being the first French series to crack Netflix’s top 10, garnering more viewers than critical darling The Queen’s Gambit.

In flashbacks, we see Assane as a child (the excellent Mamadou Haidara), watching as imperious Monsieur Pellegrini accuses his father. At school, we see him bond with Claire (as a teen, Ludmilla Makowski; The Young Pope’s Ludivine Sagnier as an adult), who will eventually mother his child. In the present day, we also follow the team of police investigators on his trail.

Assane styles himself after Arsène Lupin, Maurice Leblanc’s thief immortalized in dozens of books, magazine stories and films. Young Assane pores over the collection of Lupin stories his father gives him as a birthday gift, annotating the pages and internalizing its puzzles.

It’s great fun to see him outwit his opponents, particularly when they’re wealthy and snobbish. Lupin wants us to notice how ridiculously easy it is for Assane, the son of a Senegalese immigrant, to vanish before the white faces that surround him. There’s a Clark Kent make-under afoot when he swaps evening wear for coveralls or a delivery driver’s uniform and hunches his broad shoulders into a service worker’s slump. And you can’t help but root for him when he impersonates a police detective to bilk a white dowager who blithely reports much of her diamond jewelry is from stones her husband took from the Congo: “We just helped ourselves.” For viewers in France, where Lupin is as well-known as James Bond or Sherlock Holmes, it’s a particularly inspired bit of casting.

Yet it’s disturbing that Lupin’s world contains virtually no Black women. Claire is white. (I did love her therapy flashback, because I too would be annoyed if my partner could pull off a Louvre heist but forget our son’s birthday). We never see Assane’s mother. The journalist he pairs with to battle Pellegrini is white. Is there no room for a smart and savvy Black woman in Assane’s orbit?

Show creator George Kay told Variety earlier this year that he wanted to reinvent the iconic French character to create a “really modern story.” One hopes that the next five episodes, expected on Netflix this summer, will fully realize that in the characters who surround its irresistibly cheeky con man.

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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