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“Un moment de suspense” is the French term for a cliffhanger. And - mon dieu! - did season one of the French thriller Lupin (Netflix) leave us on one. The teenage son of the show’s con man-hero had been kidnapped by one of the villain’s henchmen, leaving his frantic parents screaming his name across a crowded beach full of kids all dressed alike. And the first episode of season two cranks up that suspense until the tension becomes almost insupportable.
For those not yet snared in the Lupin loop, this superslick crime caper is the smash-and-grab hit of 2021. Created by the British showrunner George Kay (Criminal) and starring the ridiculously charismatic Omar Sy, this French-language Netflix Original is currently the streamer’s most-watched global programme.
Like 2010’s Cumberbatch-fronted Sherlock, the show transports the vintage delights of intricate plotting and a charismatic-brainiac hero into the high speed, high-tech 21st century. But, unlike Sherlock, the show doesn’t attempt to reincarnate the old literary character from whom it takes its name. Instead Sy plays a modern con man called Assane Diop whose theatrical, Oceans 11-esque heists are inspired by Maurice LeBlanc’s much-beloved tales of Arsene Lupin: Gentleman Thief.
Series one showed us how Diop turned to crime after his doting, widowed dad, Babakar (a Senegalese immigrant), was framed for a jewel theft by his employer, the powerful Hubert Pellegrini (Hervé Pierre). Babakar was soon found dead in his jail cell, leaving 14-year-old Assane an orphan determined to avenge his father’s death.
In LeBlanc’s stories (originally commissioned in 1905 by a French magazine hoping for the same sales boost the British Strand magazine got from Sherlock Holmes) Lupin was “a man of a thousand disguises: in turn a chauffer, detective, bookmaker, Russian physician, Spanish bull-fighter, commercial traveler, robust youth, or decrepit old man”.
Lupin gives this a brilliant modern spin by using its hero’s ethnicity as both a cloak and a magnet. Despite his hulking 6ft 3in frame and rivetingly good looks, Sy’s Diop can slip into the Louvre with the cleaning crew without anyone noticing. He can then remove his overalls to reveal the tux beneath, ensuring all eyes are on him as the only black man at a swanky society auction, thus securing his alibi.
In a recent interview with Time magazine, Sy - whose own immigrant mother worked as a cleaner - says that despite being an award-winning Hollywood star he was able to paste a giant poster advertising Lupin onto a billboard in the Paris Metro without anybody spotting him. “There is a category of person in France, people who have specific jobs, but who we never stop to consider,” he said. “What we say in the series is not an invention. It is what is happening in real life.”
Flashbacks used in season one showed us the young Diop on the receiving end of racist attitudes. In season two we see him name it. When he accompanies his girlfriend to a music shop and the owner (all smiles before seeing the black kid) refuses to rent them a violin, the teenage boy says simply: “racist”. Then he steals the instrument and escapes the consequences in a way that inspires his adult machinations against the equally racist Pelligrini. There’s a glorious Robin Hoodwinkery to the way Diop repeatedly exploits prejudice to bring down his wealthy and corrupt enemies.
Lupin’s baddies are comically one-dimensional. Greedy, cigar-chomping Pellegrini makes toasts to “the origin of the world: money!” The poor police commissioner he’s corrupted spends both seasons mopping the sweaty guilt from his forehead. And his lock-jawed henchmen keep their faces frozen in a rictus of unquestioning sociopathy.
But season two builds up the goofy bromances between Diop and his childhood friend-turned adult accomplice Ben (Antoine Gouy) and smart cop Guedira (Soufiane Guerrab), who shares his love of both LeBlanc’s novels and his determination to see justice done. Diop’s romantic history remains complicated, as he’s torn between his feelings for Claire (Ludivine Sagnier), the decent, hardworking mother of his teenage son Claire, and Pellegrini’s more wayward daughter, Juliette (Clotilde Hesme). He’s got both their hearts in his pocket, but is too decent to hurt either woman.
As viewers, we know how they feel. So much about Lupin is incroyable. And Diop’s cunning plan to bring down Pellegrini becomes increasingly implausible as season two builds to its grand finale. The final episode is so absurd it doesn't so much jump the shark as gleefully cartwheel over a whale, blowing kisses. Even Diop gets the giggles when he decides to recruit a young helper by lurking in a library, waiting to see who's come to borrow the Lupin novels.
But Lupin's cliches are irresistibly seductive. This is a show that takes us to Paris, pours us champagne, plays us old chansons and winks as it offers us diamonds. It sends our pulses racing with giddy chases through spooky old chateaux and down into the catacombs. It flatters us into feeling chic and clever when we realise (seconds before the actors on screen) how Diop has done it again. We award ourselves extra sophistication points for eschewing the dubbed version and watching in subtitled French. We’re happy to be Diop's easy marks and he leaves us all smiling and shaking our heads. Bravo! Bravo! Encore!