This is a spoiler-free review of Netflix’s Lupin, which is now streaming Part 1 – its first five episodes – on Netflix globally. Lupin: Part 2 will be released later this year.
As adaptations go, Netflix’s Lupin has taken an unusual journey to the screen. The series is based on the fantastical stories about “gentleman thief” Arsène Lupin, the early 20th-century French literary character created by Maurice Leblanc, though it exists in an ostensibly real-world setting. Its protagonist Assane Diop (Omar Sy) functions as both a deconstruction of the gentleman swindler — a wealthy rogue who steals for the thrill of it — as well as a loving homage to the character, since Leblanc’s novels exist within the series’ fiction, and serve as Diop’s in-universe inspiration (The show’s full title, Lupin: dans l’ombre d’Arsène, translates to “In the shadow of Arsène”).
It’s by no means the first series to act as both a remake and a descendant. Fans of anime and manga are likely familiar with Lupin the Third, the long-running franchise about Arsène Lupin’s French-Japanese grandson Lupin III, which began in 1967 and is still going strong. However, by taking this meta-fictional approach (a la Steven Moffat’s Jekyll show, DC’s Silver Age Flash comic, or Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2), the Netflix series lends itself to readings that may not have been possible in a traditional adaptation. Assane Diop is hardly a monocle-wearing, top-hat-sporting aristocrat; as the son of working-class Senegalese immigrants, he exists forever on the outskirts of Paris’ upper echelons. The original Lupin was a master of disguise, a skill Diop has taught himself over the years, but there’s only so much a Black man can do to blend in with a white bourgeoisie.
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The show consists of ten episodes, five of which have been released in “Part 1” (with “Part 2” set to arrive later this year). Thus far, it’s admittedly uneven, bookended by a pair of great stories, with its middle three chapters feeling various degrees of extraneous. But by the time it gets to where it’s going in chapter 5 — entitled “Étretat,” after the Normandy cliffs featured in Leblanc’s “The Hollow Needle” — the wait feels mostly worthwhile.
Unlike the crime-of-the-week Lupin books and novellas, the show has an overarching plotline concerning a conspiracy from Diop’s past, but each episode also features a central heist from Leblanc’s most famous stories. These are, for the most part, exciting to watch, between the revelation of each ploy’s inner-workings after the fact, and Omar Sy’s innate charm, which makes him a smooth-as-hell Lupin analogue. However, when it comes to Sy’s actual character, Assane Diop, the show often feels half-baked. Sy has proven to be a tremendous performer in the past, but he’s saddled with the kind of role he usually gets in Hollywood films (like Inferno and X-Men: Days of Future Past), wherein he has an incontestable physical presence, but his function is limited to the mechanics of the plot.
That sums up most of the series’ problems. Everything from childhood flashbacks to secondary characters rarely extends beyond its plot function; rare are the moments in episodes 2 through 4 where it feels like a character-centric story, in a visual medium, told with the help of an ensemble; it’s all information, no vibes! Take, for instance, the cops on Diop’s tail, who slowly begin to piece together his crimes by referring to Leblanc’s work: they have no interiority as human beings, and their scenes usually begin and end with whatever new discoveries they’ve made.
There are a few exceptions, of course, like Diop’s ex-wife Claire (Ludivine Sagnier), and a disgraced journalist he later befriends (Anne Benoît), but there are just as many characters — like Diop’s childhood friend Benjamin (Antoine Gouy), an accomplice in his schemes — who feel like they cease to exist once Diop leaves the room. Dramatically, the show is a bit of a drag, which is especially unfortunate since the plot is kicked into motion by the sudden resurgence of a valuable necklace from Diop’s past, which in turn unearths a story of betrayal, and of breadcrumbs left behind by Diop’s father Bakar (Fargass Assandé). The answers to each question, while technically “unexpected” since they reveal new information, aren’t “surprising” in a narrative sense, since these payoffs rarely stem from existing hints or setups. The series’ mysteries are zags without the zigs.
However, while Lupin often fumbles its emotional reveals, the series is at its best when following Diop enacting his plans, and when revealing each one from a different vantage, making us privy to every moving part like a magician revealing his secrets. The show captures the momentum of a clockwork heist, the tension of sudden obstacles and the ingenuity of improvised responses, with thrilling precision (especially in “Chapter 1 – Le Collier de la reine,” directed by Now You See Me’s Louis Leterrier).
Lupin is also politically incisive when it wants to be; it brings to mind Ladj Ly’s Oscar-nominated 2019 film Les Misérables, which adapted the broad strokes of Victor Hugo’s novel about the 1832 Paris Rebellion, and modernized the story by focusing on the police brutality faced by non-white Parisians. Lupin opens with Diop disguised as cleaning staff and entering the Louvre after-hours, alongside dozens of forgotten, anonymous non-white workers as they pass by “La Liberté guidant le people,” Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting of the July Revolution of 1830 which replaced France’s hereditary rule with popular sovereignty. Before any semblance of plot or character, Lupin centers broken ideals and promises unkept (without giving too much away, the show’s primary villain has much more nationalistic view of French culture and history). The rest of the episode is about valuable jewels once owned by Marie Antionette — one of the most recognizable symbols of wealth and extravagance in times of extreme poverty — which are put up for auction, and bid on by wealthy collectors with bottomless purses and no sense of irony.
Granted, beyond this auction subplot, explorations of race and class are largely limited to individual interactions, but the show continues to refer back to (and implicitly comment on) its source material in ways that wink at the audience. An elderly, unassuming target of Diop’s schemes seems like an unlikely victim at first — Diop, though he acts in his own self-interest, usually displays a moral compass — until this victim reveals the colonial origins of her wealth, immediately re-contextualizing the ethics of the situation, in a manner that Leblanc’s stories did not. (The show is yet to apply this lens to Arsène Lupin himself, who Diop treats with reverence, but that’s a secondary concern since Lupin is entirely fictional in-world).
Barring some nagging structural problems — like cutting to flashbacks when things are getting exciting, or epilogues that feel ten minutes too long — Lupin mostly works. It plants a few personal seeds early on, which it keeps hinting at without fully addressing (the story of Diop being torn between his job and his family feels like wheel-spinning, rather than emotional intrigue) but by the time its scattered elements come into focus, the show finally figures out how to weave them together, and delivers a mid-season cliffhanger that renders many of these flaws irrelevant.
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