The greatest trick by Lupin, a new French series on Netflix, is disguising substantiveness in plain sight. The show, created by the British showrunner George Kay and inspired by the beloved French character Arsène Lupin, packages over 115 years of inspiration (dating back to the character’s invention by writer Maurice Leblanc in 1905) in a slick, swift escape easily binged in a day. Its star, the French actor Omar Sy, towers over his scene partners, perpetually unreadable yet brimming with charisma; his character, Assane Diop, is a con man with a heart of gold able to turn his outsized presence into an uncatchable master of deception.
The show is slight – five episodes of about 43 minutes (with more to come this year) – and without much press in the US, yet a week after its release is the second most watched program on Netflix, and the streamer’s first French program to crack the top 10 in the American market. It’s currently the streamer’s most-watched global program and the company has now stated that it’s set to reach 70m households within the first month, which will make it bigger than both Bridgerton and The Queen’s Gambit.
It’s not hard to see why; Lupin combines the verve of Ocean’s Eleven with the thrilling implausibility and cultural lore of the first National Treasure. Where Nicolas Cage stole the Declaration of Independence, Assane begins the series with a similarly outlandish plan: steal Marie Antoinette’s necklace, lost for 25 years and slated for auction, from the Louvre. But Assane, it’s quickly revealed, is more cunning than anyone around him assumes; he’s a devout fan of Arsène Lupin, the quintessential French gentleman thief replete with a monocle and a top hat, who has fingered through a copy of his debonair escapades so many times the pages are worn. (Sy is a fan as well, and the series arose in part from the freedom afforded by his César award for The Intouchables and Hollywood career to select his dream role – “If I were British, I would have said James Bond, but since I’m French, I said Lupin,” he told the New York Times).
Between montages of his shockingly low-budget heist plan (which, ultimately, is a bit of a red herring; you’re not watching to see if he gets the necklace) the show peels back the layers of Assane’s motivation: 25 years earlier, his father Babakar (Fargass Assandé), an immigrant from Senegal hired as a chauffeur for a wealthy white Parisian family, was framed for stealing the necklace. He died by suicide in prison, leaving an orphaned Assane with a copy of the Lupin stories and a drive for vengeance.
The series was always likely to be a hit in France, where the character of Lupin is a Sherlock Holmes-type cultural touchstone – a popular TV series that bore his name ran from 1971 to 1974 and a 2004 film starred Romain Duris. Lupin has also served as inspiration for a lineage of Japanese creators: the manga artist Kazuhiko Kato, known by the pen name Monkey Punch, created an ongoing anime series based Lupin’s grandson, Lupin III, which has itself inspired several anime adaptations, including the legendary director Hayao Miyazaki’s debut feature Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro.
Though a largely unfamiliar character to the US, and despite Americans’ general reluctance to watch with subtitles, Lupin’s success isn’t entirely unprecedented. Netflix automatically plays the dubbed English version, and Lupin follows in the footsteps of breakout global hits, such as Money Heist, far and away Netflix’s most popular global show viewed by 65m households when its fourth season dropped in April 2020 (though it’s worth noting that as of last year, Netflix counted a “view” as any account watching over two minutes of a program).
But the biggest draw, of course, is the gentleman con. Lupin won’t win any awards for its production or writing, but any viewer knows that’s not the point; the hook is in the Hollywood slickness of Assane’s scheming, and the illusion of dauntless competency under pressure. It’s a tried and true TV genre – think the icy schemer Tommy Shelby at his prime in the British gangster series Peaky Blinders, another bombastic global Netflix hit, or Idris Elba in Luther, perhaps Assane’s clearest TV antecedent.
Still, Assane is no tech-laden Bruce Wayne; Assane is decidedly minimalist in his schemes, as he harnesses the potential of the street – masquerading as a food delivery biker, for example, or infiltrating small-scale drug rings – and eludes authorities through a series of distractions and faultless charm. He handles the fault lines of race in French society with the same dexterity, able to wield his presence as a 6ft 2in black man as alternately magnet or cloak. Posing as a member of the Louvre’s custodial staff, he’s invisible, able to scope out his target with minimal attention; as an ultra-rich tech entrepreneur at the necklace’s auction, his singularity as the only black face in the room becomes an insurance policy – noticed by everyone, he’s not suspected for the theft.
It’s a refreshing twist on an old-fashioned character within a longstanding genre, one that takes little to surrender to. Each episode concludes with a kick, in which Assane reveals his hand to reframe the episode’s prior events as a cascade of aspirational calm, expert planning and total control. Lupin’s “greatest talent, without a doubt, was to always be one step ahead”, Assane narrates over the first reveal, quoting the century-old source material over a montage of his deception – the allure of an all-knowing, sublime, mutable thief transcending both time and language.