Connoisseurs of classic detectives took notice when Netflix debuted the first five episodes of its new French series “Lupin” last month. And those familiar with the dynamic, charismatic actor Omar Sy — best known as the lead in the international smash-hit film “Intouchables” — imagined exciting possibilities.
The French actor has crossed over into studio films like “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “Jurassic World.” He is a leading man, and his role as the title character in this contemporary, Paris-set series promised not only to spotlight that, but to serve as another successful instance of colorblind casting. Previous adaptations involving Sy’s character were typically written or cast with a white man in the main role.
But casting aside, viewers familiar with Arsene Lupin, an early 20th century master of disguise created by Maurice Leblanc, found to their surprise that the updated character bears, at best, a tangential relationship to the gentleman thief of lore.
Leblanc was a contemporary of Sherlock Holmes’ author Arthur Conan Doyle. He (illegally) incorporated the English detective in a handful of stories (later with a slightly changed name). But Lupin was no mere Parisian doppelganger for the iconic Baker Street sleuth. He shares a background among the elites of his city, but adds the elan of another classic fictional hero: Robin Hood. Lupine is no philanthropist, but he steals only from the rich and commits acts outside the law to right wrongs (at least, in part).
He also traditionally is akin to other rogue-ish detectives like Raffles, the Lone Wolf, and the Saint, who have all been adapted into films for decades. Lupine has been portrayed as very sophisticated (the French savoir-faire and a strong element of romantic passion certainly separates him from Holmes but to some extent other characters).
Enter the Omar Sy “Lupin.” The series’ subtitle “in the shadow of Arsene” suggests right off the bat that it intends to borrow from familiarity with the character (which is high in French-speaking areas and less to nonexistent elsewhere). The tie-ins include the character (named Assane here) utilizing disguises and sleights of hand to exact revenge for injustices done to his father (who died in prison after a conviction for a jewel theft he didn’t commit) and other wrongs committed by a powerful businessman. He hides his identity by taking on names that are anagrams of Arsene Lupine. As a child, Assane read the stories and uses the plots as guidance.
Liam Daniel / ©Netflix / Courtesy Everett Collection
The series, which Netflix claims has been seen in over 70 million households worldwide, placed in the Top 10 in every country the streamer plays and, for the first time for a French show in the U.S., has gained decent domestic critical response (including an 83 score at Metacritic). That makes it the best reviewed original content so far this year (even ahead of the late 2020 arrival, “Bridgerton”).
Past adaptations have come not only from France and the U.S., but also Japan, Mexico, and elsewhere. Multiple French TV series have spanned decades, including some in animation. Japan picked up a Manga level, and offshoots have included video games. So the appeal is more current than might be thought.
To American cinephiles, two 1930s MGM films provide the best reference. “Arsene Lupin,” directed by Jack Conway with John Barrymore, captures vintage Lupin, including a pre-code frankness that ranks with the most provocative of the period. Lupin finds seductress Karen Morley in his bed, clearly nude though covered from the chest down. Their frank dialogue leads to the lights turned off but their voices heard as they move on to more intimate contact. Melvyn Douglas took over the role in the more conventional 1938 “Arsene Lupin Returns.”
To an observer familiar with recent French action films meant to replicate American studio efforts, “Lupin” will also feel familiar. Though producer Luc Besson, who has been the leader in these parallel efforts (“Taken,” “Transporter”) wasn’t involved here, his influence is felt. This includes his protege Louis Letterier, who directed the first three episodes. (Fun fact: He’s the son of actor Francois Letterier, star of Robert Bresson’s “A Man Escaped” from a different era of French cinema.) Its theatrically released predecessors have been fairly seamless in recreating the feel of internationally aimed action films despite their French roots.
This is more French-specific, including its cast and setting as well as original character. But of course the standout element, apart from shifting off an aristocratic character, is that Netflix’s Assane is Black. Specifically, he is the son of a Senegalese emigre, who as a child fell in love with the Lupin stories.
That’s a hook that makes sense for the series. The 2020 “Lupin” arrives with the backdrop of (unlikely) speculation that James Bond could be recast with a Black actor. (Idris Elba is often mentioned as credible.) There’s also the success of the colorblind casting in “Bridgerton,” which Netflix claims to have even higher viewership numbers, and amid decades of examples where the American media transforms white mainstream settings to minority characters. (The Hardy Family becomes the Huxtables, Denzel Washington is The Equalizer, and now Queen Latifah is The Equalizer.)
It’s not quite the same here. And strangely, though France is multi-ethnic, the series is weirdly nearly all white, including the absence of Black women (though there is a romantic element to the plot), which rings all the stranger when Netflix’s “Bridgerton” cast Black actors as English aristocrats in a story set two centuries ago.
This is not meant as criticism. No one show should bear the burden of representation, much less one that does foreground a major Black actor. But it remains a curious attempt to borrow a classic character and perhaps not maximize the potential of a closer tie-in to the core story.
“Lupin” is streaming now on Netflix.