A spoiler-free introduction to the Netflix original series, Lupin, starring Omar Sy.
What is Lupin about?
Assane Diop (Omar Sy) styles himself on gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, a fictional character well known in French literature. The series begins with Diop planning to steal a priceless necklace from the Louvre museum.
This isn’t just about the money, though. For Diop, it’s a matter of revenge. Years earlier, his father was framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Now, like Lupin, Diop must use disguise and illusion to pull off the impossible.
What’s the series like?
Lupin’s basic premise is a kind of Robin Hood style heist that takes down unpleasant rich people. Yes, there’s some similarity with the stylistic flair of Ocean’s Eleven. Assane pulls off a range of extravagant cons, Mission Impossible-style disguises, and Axel Foley-ish bluster.
Some viewers have compared it to Luther but, aside from a Black male lead, the two are streets apart. And, despite featuring kids in care, discrimination, corruption and suicide, Lupin is nowhere as dark as Luther.
Instead, Lupin runs like a mix of crime thriller, magic show and a logic puzzle. It’s light enough to be escapism, but there’s intrigue and depth for those that want it.
Is Lupin based on a book?
The show is inspired by the books and short stories of French writer Maurice LeBlanc (1864-1941). LeBlanc’s protagonist, Arsène Lupin, is a gentleman thief – an ingenious and daring criminal. The tales are similar to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series: mostly short vignettes that set-up and then explain a baffling crime. The main difference is that Lupin is the criminal.
LeBlanc, writing of his creation, once said “Lupin follows me everywhere. He is not my shadow. I am his shadow.” The Netflix series picks up on this. Rather being an adaption of the books, the show is inspired by their flair and intrigue.
There’s a nod to this in the opening credits. The untranslated subtitle Dans l’ombre d’Arsène means ‘in Arsène’s shadow’. References to the books and their anti-hero also crop up repeatedly in different episodes:
- There’s the similarity of the names Arsène and Assane. Assane also uses pseudonyms that play on anagrams of “Arsène Lupin”, such as Paul Sernine.
- The show features plots inspired by the books, including “The Queen’s Necklace” and “The Mysterious Traveller” stories in the first Lupin book.
- There are hidden references, too. When Assane visits a journalist in one episode, the camera pans across playing cards, then lingers on the Seven of Hearts – the title of another Lupin story.
- Several characters are obsessed or fascinated with the Lupin books (you might be too once you’ve watched this series).
Does the show glamourise crime?
It’s a fair question. Like Ocean’s Eleven, Now You See Me, and other con-based movies, the show uses ‘fair game’ tactics to keep our sympathy with the protagonist.
Here it’s revenge (for past wrongs). The ‘victims’ also represent broader exploitative or discriminatory social failings – corrupt cops, blood diamonds, racism in the justice system. There’s something satisfying about seeing these wrongs righted, even if it’s only on-screen.
The cons also add frisson to the story – they’re stylish, fast paced and audacious. The show does introduce some of the consequences of this kind of lifestyle, though not until quite late into season one.
It doesn’t shy away from race and class
Some of the show’s depth comes from touching on emotive issues including race and refugees. France isn’t unique in struggling with racial discrimination and cultural suppression, but it makes a mainstream show like Lupin surprising.
Lupin’s take on the literary adaptation is clever. Off-screen commentary about colour-blind casting (The Personal History of David Copperfield, Bridgerton) or gender reboots (Dr Who, Ghostbusters) often overshadows the story itself.
But Lupin isn’t a direct adaptation of Leblanc’s books – it’s an homage. This is a smart way of silencing all but the most prejudiced viewers (the sad thing is that it’s necessary at all).
This doesn’t mean it’s a perfect levelling, however. There’s a distinct absence of women of colour in meaningful roles. And, aside from two other characters, almost all the show’s lead stars are white.
Likewise, the series touches on how working class people are often invisible and exploited (and criminalised) in society. These are labels people of colour, immigrants and refugees can understand, too.
And as Europe argues over its responsibility to refugees, Lupin reflects the humanity of people who want to work and contribute to society. It tells a story that cinema excels at: of underdogs and heroes we can accept as our own.
Picture credit: Michael Fousert
Similar films and series
- Prestige (magic, illusion, crime)
- Ocean’s Eleven (revenge, heist)
- Now You See Me (heist, magic)
- Les Revenants (suspenseful French-language serial)