Assane Diop (Omar Sy), the protagonist of a new Netflix series, Lupin, is an oxymoronic figure: a “gentleman thief”. Depending on the place and people, he can either be a gentleman who happens to be a thief or a thief who can’t help being a gentleman. He robs museums, jails and stores. He charms, manipulates and dupes – so much so that, in one case, an old lady entrusts her precious antiques to him. Assane accepts them with ease and smile – and disappears. He can sell umbrellas in the desert, earmuffs in Mumbai. But there’s one thing even Assane can’t do: escape his past.
Two-and-a-half decades ago, his father, Babakar Diop (Fargass Assandé), a chauffeur for a wealthy French diplomat, Hubert Pellegrini (Hervé Pierre), was imprisoned for stealing a diamond necklace from his house. Babakar kept pleading his innocence; no one listened. Deceived into signing a letter of confession, which didn’t result in an early release, he hung himself in the cell. Babakar was a Senegalese immigrant, who had moved to France with his only son. Assane always believed that his father was innocent and when, 25 years later, the same necklace resurfaces in Louvre, he senses a chance. Assane is up against the world, and he has only one weapon in his arsenal: a novel. His father’s last gift: the adventures of a fictional “gentleman thief”, Arsène Lupin.
The Netflix series opens to Assane planning a heist at Louvre. Consider the set-up: a dead father, a disconsolate son, a cruel System, an avenging adult not afraid of unlawful means – the powerful and the poor, the guilty and the innocent. More than a French thriller, Lupin sounds like Bollywood masala. Its directors, Louis Leterrier and Marcela Said, are aware of the inherent melodrama underpinning the series. They frame their protagonist as the hero, replete with easy charm, cunning intelligence, and a soft heart. A swinging background score accompanies Assane, as he conjures up one steal after the other.
There’s some social commentary, too. Assane gets a job as a janitor at Louvre. He tells his accomplices to enter through the tunnel reserved for janitors, as it’s hidden from the public – and everything gets scanned except their trash bags. The Louvre’s class segregation becomes its undoing. When Assane, posing as a billionaire, buys the necklace after successful bids, the auctioneer tells him, “I must admit, I wasn’t expecting someone like you as a buyer.” Assane is perplexed. He clarifies, “Well, I mean, uh, so young!” Assane chuckles, but we get the hint. Even Babakar, a black man, getting jailed without evidence – by a powerful white guy – reeks of racial discrimination.
The scenes in the present are spliced with flashback sequences: the brief happy days between the father and son, Babakar getting framed and jailed, him dying by suicide. But it doesn’t end there. The show keeps visiting the past, showing how Assane grew up, fell in love with Lupin, and found his friend and soulmate in school, Claire (Ludivine Sagnier), now his ex-wife. Both Assane and Claire found school tough – she was harassed, he was bullied – until they met each other. These scenes are tender and funny, contextualising Assane, showing a full picture of him. The makers relish in these temporal transitions, playing with visual and aural match cuts.
This alternate story – running in parallel to the adult world of gentleman thief – makes sense, because it also presents an alternate always available to Assane: to be ‘normal’, to have a family, to take care of his son, Raoul (Etan Simon), who, like his father and grandfather, has become an ardent Lupin fan. But Assane can’t – he needs to take revenge, a fact unknown to his wife and son. The series is perceptive and empathetic about the impact of lost childhood: how it continues to affect the present in numerous insidious ways. It also leads to the show’s bipolar conflicts – between an unfortunate adolescence and a restless adulthood, between a gentleman and a thief – and the implications are more heartbreaking than Lupin lets on.
For a five-part series, Lupin has a solid set up. Its story juggles three segments: Assane’s quest for revenge, his interactions with his family (including his past with Claire), and the investigation of the French police department, headed by Commissioner Dumont (Vincent Garanger). It also unfolds in layers: Assane first suspects Pellegrini’s wife (Nicole Garcia) who leads him to Dumont, ultimately finding the real culprit, getting help from a reclusive investigative journalist. It’s a screenplay of whos and whys: it evokes intrigue by its very nature.
But after the impressive first episode, Lupin starts to lose its way. The series relies on Assane’s heroics, but several scenes defy basic logic, causing you to suspect his brilliance – especially someone who has modelled himself after a fictional character known for his smarts. When a cop, Youssef Guedira (Soufiane Guerrab), senses a connection between all the crimes, you get the feeling that the names of different suspects – “Paul Sernine”, “Luis Perenna” (all of them Assane) – anagram to ‘Arsène Lupin’. That’s the basic clue that Guedira cracks, telling his peers that he’s found “something incredible”.
It also gets predictable in other softer and tense moments – such as Babakar gifting a Lupin novel to his son; Assane doing the same for Raoul, who likes the book; and Guerdia piecing the clues after the main revelation – diluting the series’ charm and panache. All of this results in a dichotomous viewing experience: a story of a conman who is ahead of everyone but the series depicting his bravado remains a step behind.
As the tension escalates in the subsequent episodes, Assane gets desperate; so do the makers, as the series relies on convenient and contrived plot turns to justify an invincible protagonist, leaving many questions unresolved. Lupin has plenty of dynamic camera movements, but the eager cuts often disrupt their natural flow, squashing an ascending momentum. Some of them are tonally abrupt – jumping from scenes of high to low intensity – producing a jarring, arhythmic effect.
Even amid sloppiness, though, impressive scenes and performances pop up, making us hang on. Sy, in particular, is memorable throughout the series, dignifying a much beloved literary figure. His portrayal is informed by comforting humour, lightening up even somber scenes. He’s also an alert actor, aware of a scene’s trajectory, allowing him to subvert the tone – and the audiences’ expectations – with minimal fuss: a smile, a joke, a nod. A few actors shine in minor roles – especially Guerrab (subdued yet full of conviction and confidence), journalist Fabienne Bériot (Anne Benoît; blunt yet tender), and the younger versions of Assane and Claire (Mamadou Haidara and Ludmilla Makowski; endearing and credible) – preventing Lupin from being monotonously mediocre.
But sporadic smarts can only rescue, not elevate, the series. It ends with a cliffhanger, promising another season soon. For a thriller, such an announcement fills you with anticipation, but Lupin doesn’t elicit similar excitement. But if it can rectify the flaws of the first season, and concentrate on its strengths, then there’s hope. Because Lupin still has a poignant core: it’s the story of a man so absorbed in avenging his past that he forgets that he has a present, his own family, too.