What does it mean to be a gentleman cambrioleur? The epithet traditionally describes Arsène Lupin, the celebrated literary creation of Maurice Leblanc (1864-1941), who is also the primary inspiration for this Netflix series and its protagonist Assane Diop (Omar Sy). It is even the subject for a song we hear in a climactic scene, released by French crooner Jacques Dutronc in 1973.
But isn’t gentleman cambrioleur – “gentleman burglar” – a contradiction in terms? One flash of Assane’s grin can usually quieten such qualms, and the spell always lasts long enough for him to pull off his latest elaborate ruse. Lupin’s first five episodes, collectively titled Part 1, have been watched by more than 70m households worldwide since launching in January, making this the streaming service’s biggest non-English language hit to date. The winning combination of charismatic star and stage illusionist visuals in an iconic city setting bears comparison to the BBC’s London-set Sherlock. Where Lupin betters its English equivalent is in its effortlessly chic updating of the revered source material.
Our modern-day Lupin swaps the top hat and monocle for a flat cap and Air Jordans, which he wears as lightly as the social themes underpinning the series. Assane Diop is the son of Babakar Diop (Fargass Assandé) an intelligent and principled Senegalese immigrant who earned his living chauffeuring for rich and greedy Parisian bigwig Hubert Pellegrini (Hervé Pierre). That is, until Pellegrini framed Diop Sr for theft as part of an insurance scam, which leads to Diop Jr becoming orphaned. Now Assane rights such past wrongs with postcolonial panache – stealing from the rich and redistributing the proceeds among his demi-monde pals. Crucially, he never resorts to violence. Charm and meticulous planning is always enough.
If Part 2 has a flaw it’s only that it feels like what it is: a continuation of the previous series, rather than an adventurous leap in a different direction. Assane is still subject to the same racism and classism (never be an unfamiliar Black man walking into a Normandy village bar), but his growing notoriety makes it trickier to turn these prejudices to his advantage. It was easy to be a master of disguise when the cops couldn’t seem to tell one Black man from another, enabling him to move unnoticed among the city’s all-but-invisible underclass of cleaners and cooks. Now there’s an accurate photofit doing the rounds, plus the kidnap of Assane’s teenage son Raoul (Etan Simon) has raised the stakes.
“This is not a game,” Assane scolds cop and fellow Lupin fanboy, Guedira (Soufiane Guerrab). Not a game, maybe, but still a lot of fun. These new episodes involve a spooky, subterranean jaunt in the catacombs of Paris, a high-speed heist at the Musée d’Orsay, and midnight chases along the Seine.
“Gentleman” was once the term Mme Pellegrini and her ilk used to patronise any Black men they deemed sufficiently servile. Now the show seems more interested in how that “gentleman” tag applies – or doesn’t – to Assane’s treatment of women. Like Guedira, by now we can feel comfortably assured that our hero “doesn’t kill. He’s a gentleman burglar!” (Indeed, this is the guy who pauses mid-struggle to tactfully suggest that the gunman might want unlock his weapon’s safety catch.) The question is, would Assane break a heart if it furthered his scheme? And how are we supposed to feel about that?
Raoul’s mother, Claire (Ludivine Sagnier), is no cliche of a woman scorned, but as flashbacks fill in some background, it’s clear that even her easygoing indulgence of the lovable rogue routine has its limits. Then there’s Juliette Pellegrini (Clotilde Hesme). Is the daughter of Assane’s enemy his friend? A genuine love interest? Or just a convenient pawn in his revenge plot? And even if theirs is a mutually respectful relationship, just look how Assane’s last female collaborator, investigative journalist Fabienne Bériot (Anne Benoît), ended up. Note, too, that, with the exception of French-Algerian Lt Belkacem (Shirine Boutella), there are no women of colour in Lupin’s world. Not even Assane’s mother, who is absent, presumed dead and rarely referred to. Our hero has dedicated himself and his formidable skills to clearing his father’s name, while his mother has no name.
But that’s a mystery for the already commissioned part three, perhaps. Along with the whereabouts of J’Accuse the dog – the best-named pet on television. Indeed, trying to keep track of his often-absent pet will leave you feeling like a mark in one of Assane’s favourite short cons, the old cup and ball game.