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The Deceptive Charms of ‘Lupin’

Why Netflix’s latest hit show works so well—and why it reminds us of that other ‘Lupin’

Netflix/Amazon/Ringer illustration

How could the charismatic lead of the new limited Netflix series Lupin—released this past Friday and inspired by the exploits of Maurice Leblanc’s gentleman thief—possibly hide in plain sight? Assane Diop (Omar Sy) is not only magnetic, but spellbinding—and also very large. Even as he’s casing the Louvre in his cleaning crew jumpsuit, he has presence, towering over his coworkers. He walks like a ballplayer, and when he puts on his skinny slate-gray Express suit the night of the big caper, he looks less Bond than Kenny “the Jet” Smith. You would definitely remember if you met him, and yet, no one ever seems to. Even when, at one point in the show, he switches places with an incarcerated person that is noticeably less handsome and tall, it is reduced to a matter of shift changes. Lupin is outwardly a heist in five parts, and Assane gets comically far on Rusty Ryan’s unwritten rules of deception: He manages to be specific but not memorable, he never uses seven words when four will do. Omar Sy, however, is too charming to pass unnoticed—it helps that you want to be fooled.

In the pilot episode, Assane plans and executes the show’s central grift—the Queen’s necklace, a MacGuffin that comes replete with its own complicated lineage, from Western Europe with Napoleon to the Eastern front with the Nazis and finally residing with the Pellegrinis, one of the wealthiest and most influential families in all of France. It was stolen 25 years ago, when Assane’s father, Babakar, worked for the Pellegrinis as their valet—Babakar is found hanged in his cell after being hastily convicted of the crime, but for young Assane it’s too tidy. When the necklace reappears at auction—at a museum to which the Pellegrinis are generous donors, no less—Assane assembles a crew. At his loan shark’s apartment. The sequence, from Assane being dangled over the balcony to running through the plan while his new getaway driver, muscle, and grease man sit attentively on the couch, takes about three minutes. It’s clear that Assane usually works alone, and that this is not about the money. The physicality and rules of the show are also conveniently established: As he wrenches back the disturbingly veiny arm of an obvious bodybuilder, we learn Assane is as strong as he needs to be. By the episode’s end we learn that even when he loses, he wins.

Lupin is inspired by Arsène Lupin, Maurice Leblanc’s cartoon gentleman-cambrioleur first serialized in Je Sais Tout magazine in 1905. He wore a stylish (for its time) monocle and top hat and cared about only the things that mattered, like making women smile and getting the last laugh. Plus, he was cunning enough to win any prize. Assane, who has a chip on his shoulder and a questionable fondness for paperboy caps, became a full-on fanboy in his private school years: He’s worn down the binding of a Leblanc first edition he was gifted as a young man from reading it so many times. He’s scribbled in all the margins and littered the pages with Post-it notes.

The show’s decision to bare its source material so prominently feels somewhat limiting. The book is Assane’s inspiration, but also his method—he’s pulled some moves from Leblanc word for word. Soufiane Guerrab is wasted in the Young Detective Consumed by the Case role and spends most of this season pinning color printouts of book covers to cork boards and getting waved off by his colleagues, who are all blinded or otherwise hampered by careerism. Like Luther, which feels like a spiritual predecessor, Lupin isn’t going to win awards or even turn heads for its ability to develop tertiary or even secondary plots or characters—like Luther, that doesn’t really matter. You’re there to see a difficult hero be difficult and heroic—everyone else is there to be charmed, vexed, or eluded by them. Perhaps “effervescent” more ably describes Assane than “difficult”—where Idris Elba played DCI John Luther with vague annoyance and exquisite exhaustion, Sy’s performance bounds off the screen, and is almost musical. He floats through scenes like he glides over the roofs and through the back alleys of Paris; he outmaneuvers his foes with superior literary references and sheer athleticism. He is irresistible and also good at everything he tries, even kidnapping. At one point, when he’s slated for a cable news appearance as a much older man, we learn that Assane is also a master of disguise. The revelation of this skill arrives with a wink in the show, and it feels pointless to ask where he learned it, or how he affords movie-quality latex and makeup. Or rather, asking the question feels wrong.

While watching the show, I was reminded of Lupin the Third Part 5, the latest entry in the ongoing anime based on the manga written and illustrated by Monkey Punch, which was released in 2018. Canonically, the titular character is the grandson of Leblanc’s fictitious creation. In Part 5, Lupin III directly confronts the advent of the smartphone, which has turned everyone on Earth into a cop-slash-expert-historian. Over the course of 24 episodes, a parade of underwhelming villains form the role of the internet in aggregate, which attempts alternately to demystify and kill Lupin and his friends. Customarily a show that allows for such impenetrable anime bullshit as one of Lupin’s companions just being a samurai, in its fifth part, Lupin the Third considers the existence of fan forums, CCTV, facial recognition, virality, and the act of scrolling to fill the void that scrolling creates. How could a showy, distinctive, self-proclaimed “legendary thief” who leaves calling cards live and work in this day and age? As it fells its last tech billionaire, the show concludes that even the deepest cynics need to believe in something, so why not heroes? Where’s the fun in not being mystified?

So: Obviously that’s not Michael the IT agent skulking into the precinct at the beginning of Episode 3. It’s Assane. Even the commissioner, who should know everyone who works for him, doesn’t notice him under the thick-frame glasses. Maybe it’s the slightly hunched posture, which makes Assane stand one head over everyone else in the building instead of two. It works anyway.