I don’t know if it says more about the shallowness of our homegrown entertainment television or the depth of some international content by comparison, but no production speaks more eloquently or engagingly to some of the major issues of American life today than “Lupin,” the French-made hit series on Netflix.
There is a lot to like in “Lupin” beyond its resonance with the cultural and political zeitgeist, starting with its star, Omar Sy, whose credits include “The Intouchables” (2011), “X-Men: Day of Future Past” (2014) and “Jurassic World” (2015). If you have seen “Intouchables,” you know how appealing a performer Sy can be, especially in his handling of comedy. (If you haven’t seen it, do so soon for a highly entertaining, light but not lightweight look at social class, physical challenges, race and friendship as Sy takes on the role of live-in helper to a rich paraplegic. His boss has the money, but Sy’s character has the life force, enough for both of them.)
As an actor, Sy looked like a definite up-and-comer in “Intouchables,” but he has totally arrived as a star in “Lupin,” where he plays Assane Diop, a gentleman thief in Paris in a modern-day screen version of a character, Arsene Lupin, created for French readers in 1905 by Maurice Leblanc. In flashbacks, viewers see Diop’s father giving him a copy of the “Lupin” book, which the teen comes to treasure during a hard and lonely adolescence. At the end of episode one, Diop gives the book to his son, Raoul (Etan Simone), saying, “It’s my heritage. My method. My path. I am Lupin.”
Sy has what used to be called star presence in the days of movies shown on big screens in theaters. I suppose being in Baltimore, I have to compare him to Idris Elba, and there is nothing but a compliment in that. I have long sung the praises of this British actor who so enriched HBO’s “The Wire.” But I am talking movie star presence like Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Sidney Poitier or Denzel Washington. All four came to mind the first time I saw Sy’s face break into a smile as the camera closed in on it.
That’s another winning aspect of this series: the direction by Louis Leterrier, whose other big screen credits include “The Incredible Hulk,” “Clash of the Titans” and “Now You See Me.” He is the one responsible for the camera moving to a close-up on Sy’s smile in the old Hollywood style reserved for major stars. Bringing that cinematic feel to a French TV production immediately lifts it out of the small-screen standard TV realm. One of the joys of “Lupin” is how big some of the scenes feel, like the ones with Lupin walking the streets of Paris at night or striding across the galleries of the Louvre.
The writing is worthy of such direction with story lines that constantly shift from the present to 1995 and some of the years since. Like the NBC drama “This Is Us,” the shifts become a source of pleasure rather than a distraction or interruption as they give rich context and new meanings to the actions of the leading characters in the present.
The writers gracefully introduce Diop’s back story of coming as a boy to France some 25 years ago from Senegal with his father, Babakar (Fargass Assande), who was raising him alone. The father found a job as chauffeur to a rich man, Hubert Pellegrini (Herve Pierre), who would ultimately frame the elder Diop for a crime that he himself committed.
“Lupin” is driven by the story line of Diop trying to avenge Pellegrini’s crime and the deceit that led to his father’s death — made to look like a suicide. The writers George Kay and Francois Uzan suffuse that ancient narrative of a son avenging his father’s death with Old Testament fire and fury.
And, yet, their writing can also be light, bright and totally contemporary. Near the start of episode one, Diop is shown talking to a woman in a cafe. There is an air of familiarity, even intimacy to their banter, which could be from a romantic comedy given the tone in which it is said.
“You look like crap, Assane,” she says. “You’re handsome, but you look like crap. Can’t afford a razor?”
The woman is Diop’s wife, Claire (Ludivine Sagnier), with whom he no longer lives. Their teenage son lives with her.
The strong writing extends to the caper scenes, which have been a major selling point for Netflix. I am not as exited as some critics by the story lines in which Diop shows himself to be a master of disguises and sleight of hand, like his literary mentor Lupin. But they are cleverly scripted, and I love the way they end with the viewer being shown how Diop pulled off the scams. (Although I am not sure scam is a big enough word for successfully stealing a necklace valued at 20 million euros and once worn by Marie Antoinette. Diop pulls that off in episode one, and it is a lot of fun.)
In the end, though, it is the show’s resonance with currents in American and global life that impress me most. Diop and his father are African immigrants to France, and the flashbacks show the racism they experienced. The father is relatively easy to convict because of the racism in France that predisposes some to automatically cast criminal suspicion on a dark-skinned immigrant.
In an early scene, Pellegrini takes the umbrella from his chauffeur so that he and his wife can walk a few feet from the car to their house without getting wet. Diop’s father, the chauffeur, meanwhile, stands in the rain watching them. Once in the house, Pellegrini, more worried about the car than the man, yells back at the chauffeur, “Put the car in the garage. I don’t want it to get rained on.”
Social class is also explored in the series. As Diop plots the heist at the Louvre in the first episode, he gets a job as a janitor at the museum. When asked why he wants his partners in the crime to also be dressed as janitors, he says it’s because security at the Louvre will not see them as people and look right past them.
“They don’t see us,” he says.
And then there is the widening divide between rich and poor. Diop is not exactly a Robin Hood. But his sympathies are with those from the lower class, and he has a special enmity for the corrupt members of the ruling class. In the best tradition of comic book avengers, he is passionate about justice and punishing the crooked and wicked.
As enlightened as “Lupin” might seem on matters of race, it has come under criticism for its lack of representations of Black female identity. An online article from “Glamour” asks: ”Where are all the women of colour in Lupin? Netflix’s hit is devoid of Black female actors, and it’s alarming. Is it as diverse and inclusive as people think?”
I don’t know how diverse and inclusive “people” think it is. I guess it depends on which “people” we are talking about. I appreciate what the series has to say about racism, but there is no doubt it could and should include more representations of Black female identity. Hopefully, that will be addressed by the producers in future episodes.
And speaking of future episodes, social media is filled with people wanting more than the five episodes Netflix made available this month. Five more have been made, but Netflix is not saying when they will be released. With an audience of 70 million homes, you can bet it won’t be too long before the streaming service starts cashing in on the global appetite “Lupin” has cultivated here and abroad for the gentleman thief.
(David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidzurawik)
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