The rise of Netflix Originals means that foreign-language dramas have come into the mainstream more than ever, no longer primarily neglected to the viewership of BBC4. Lupin has a more commercialised feel than the French-language fare British audiences might be more used to, like Spiral or Salamander. This does however give it a more professional feel; it’s rich in impressive cinematography from the offset, with grand shots from above that present the splendour of the Louvre, where Luis works. Initially, this gives the show a somewhat tacky feel; Luis’s interactions with the gang who he enlists to help him to rob a necklace come across as particularly cheesy. The superficiality of this scene reels you in though, as the first episode unravels, revealing the intricate cleverness behind the curtain and an elaborate plot that makes this far more than a conventional tale of mystery and intrigue.
Lupin operates on various levels; at the surface, it is a thrilling story of deception and intrigue that hinges on the protagonist’s attempt to find the truth about the robbery for which his father was accused many years earlier, which led to his suicide. The premise for Luis’s revenge brings us into the insidious underbelly of France’s colonial past; the institutionalised racism that allowed his father to be accused, vilified and convicted with minimal evidence. We are playfully reminded of the racial profiling that continues to pervade modern life when Luis poses as the multi-millionaire buyer of the necklace he intends to steal; functionaries babble in an unsubtle attempt to conceal their shock at the race of the auction’s winner. In a particularly humorous scene, Luis ingeniously charms an old lady into giving him all her jewellery while alluding to their origin as the product of Belgian colonial brutality in Congo. On a broader scale, the condemnation of Luis’s father and the institutionalised cover-up that ensues is symbolic of France’s efforts to conceal and deny its colonial history and the way that questions of racial discrimination continue to permeate French society.
Omar Sy’s magnificent performance as Luis is reminiscent of his transgressive swagger around the world of the Parisian bourgeois elite in Les Intouchables; he is utterly convincing as the effortlessly cool scam artist and his quick quips are always delivered with endearing charm. His emotional range is evident as he conveys the deep trauma of the loss of his father and his struggle to combine his thirst for revenge with being a good father. As an artistic producer on the show, he had a say in the choice of Maurice Leblanc’s novels about Arsène Lupin for adaptation, and his interest in this French cultural icon comes through in his character’s eccentric, loveably goofy obsession with the figure. France has a complex history with screen adaptations; the great François Truffaut famously condemned French directors that created hackneyed films based on novels that didn’t avail of film as a medium. There is no such problem here, as George Kay, the show’s creator, gives us an immersive audio-visual spectacle which pays a faithful tribute to the Lupin stories while developing them in a contemporary context in an engaging and thought-provoking way.
While I am slightly uncomfortable with the ease with which Netflix Originals can be propelled into the mainstream, not subject to the laborious processes of promotion and selection that conventional television and cinema are obliged to go through, it is refreshing to see French-language drama at the forefront of global media, particularly one that poses vital questions about the way racial discrimination continues to pervade institutions across the world.
While I am slightly uncomfortable with the ease with which Netflix Originals can be propelled into the mainstream, not subject to the laborious processes of promotion and selection that conventional television and cinema are obliged to go through, it is refreshing to see French-language drama at the forefront of global media, particularly one that poses vital questions about the way racial discrimination continues to pervade institutions across the world. Lupin grips you from start to finish, its tale of injustice tugging at the heartstrings and obliging the spectator to acknowledge the legacy of colonialism and the pernicious prejudices that continue to plague the Western mindset. On a less serious note, we’re taken on a high-octane journey that always leaves us wanting more, the next cunning twist in the tale. It’s an engrossing series that allows you to escape into the magical world of Arsène Lupin, the gentleman burglar who never fails to surprise.