When subterfuge relies on not being noticed, how does a 6’ 3’’ muscular black man manage to slyly trick his way into daring thefts from places like the Louvre, scope out the high-security home of a powerful businessman, or kidnap a politician in plain sight of several people? Taking inspiration from the Arsène Lupin novels by Maurice LeBlanc, Senegalese immigrant Assane Diop deploys the blindness used by racial stereotypes along with plenty of guile to get inside the places where no-one else can.
Arsène Lupin, French gentleman thief and master of disguise, has a long literary past that has influenced pop culture for well over a hundred years. The switch to a modern setting in Netflix’s new French streaming series Lupin isn’t as out of place as it might otherwise seem; writers François Uzan and George Kay (Killing Eve) know that gentleman criminals enlighten us wherever they may be.
When it comes to heist style plotting you need to be confidently taken in by the lead performer to whisper warm shushes in your ear in the face of any shaky logic. As physically imposing as Assane Diop (Omay Sy) is, he is most certainly confident. His beguiling charisma is the lynchpin through which Lupin operates and sells how several characters are won over by his beaming charm.
The opening episode plays with misdirection and reveals the extent to which Diop thinks through his capers. Watching Sy switch from head down non-descript cleaner to dapper apparent millionaire art lover is a joy indeed. He is clearly in love with a well-executed and flashy plan. So much so that you know his promises of ‘one more job’ when he’s late paying child support money for his teenage son ring false. When we see Diop hunched over an array of computer screens in a hideout that holds little else, it’s apparent that Diop’s idolisation of Lupin’s methods leaves little room for much else in his life.
Throughout the course of the 5 episodes currently available (the remaining 5 will drop sometime later this year) the seeds are sown for a mystery linking together the wham bam heist parts. Diop’s immigrant father worked as a chauffeur to the super-rich Pelligrini family but when a priceless necklace that once belonged to Marie Antionette goes missing Diop’s father is accused and imprisoned, later taking his own life from the shame. 25 years later and with the necklace miraculously found and up for auction, Diop takes inspiration from his literary hero to use showmanship and ‘gentlemanly’ trickery to get to the truth.
This first run of episodes hooks us into the mind of Diop (through Sy’s solid performance and well placed flashbacks from 25 years ago), and Hubert Pelligrini (Hervé Pierre) cuts a satisfying (if predictably greedy businessman) antagonist. The pieces are set up to slowly build into a cracking tale that calls homage to the street level oomph of Luther, the smarty pants brainwork of Sherlock, and all the snazzy camera work and trickery that any good heist based series needs, but without the usual sneer of superiority. Diop is a man who enjoys the game, not the power.
Hopefully, the second run of episodes will give more material to the surrounding cast. The trio of police officers working the case crack some smiles as even though one is convinced that the Lupin novels have a connection, he is routinely eyerolled at by all around him. Yet Diop’s sidekick provides little more than plot facilitation at this point, dishing out exposition and expressing concern but having no agency of his own. If Lupin beefs up those caught trailing in the wake of its titular star then this show could just steal away our hearts and leave us grateful for the privilege.
Words by Mike Record