The evil men toast “to the origin of the world — money”. In their gilded Neoclassical palaces, punctuated by paintings with ornate frames, the rich plot to become richer, and coupled with their sometimes overt, sometimes subtle cues of racism, the cauldron of ill intention bubbles. The fountainhead is the business tycoon Hubert Pellegrini (Hervé Pierre), who, ironically, has a very small work desk, barely enough to tuck in his cane-bent frame. At night, intersecting laser beams streak across the room, and in case someone comes in contact with it, the alarm sounds.
Assane Diop (Omar Sy) and his best friend Benjamin (Antoine Guy) are trying to scrape clean Pellegrini’s empire and put him behind bars. The first “part” of the first season — 5 episodes that were released in January to acclaim and a record breaking 76 million views within the first month — establishes the backstory. Pellegrini had put Assane’s father who worked for him behind bars under the false pretext of stealing Marie Antoinette’s necklace. In truth, Pellegrini hid it to get the insurance money, and pretended that it was lost all these years until finally it was pieced together and unveiled in public for a charity auction. In the interim Assane’s father dies in jail — it is made to look like suicide — and Assane plots revenge, with the slow, deliberate patience of an orphaned snake.
The format of releasing the first season in two “parts” has both some concerns and hurrahs to note. Lupin is a complex web, a lot of which was left untangled at the end of the first part — his accomplice was killed, his son was kidnapped, and he was found by Gabriel (Vincent Garanger), the commissioner of police who is onto him. That all of this came together with palpable anticipation served as its own advertisement to watch the second part. But a lot of the nuance in the story was forgotten 6 months later, as I clued back into the show. This didn’t largely hamper how I tore through the second part, because the broad frame was simple enough to tap into. The smaller details weren’t pivotal to understanding the story as much as building a richer portrait in our head. What the second part did really well was tie together all the narrative threads, giving closure to some plot points, while making others messier, to be dealt with over the course of the second part. It showed how the narrative architecture was so precisely built to allow for alternative tension and release, as Lupin and Benjamin thieve through Paris.
Based on Maurice Leblanc’s detective stories about the gentleman thief and master of disguise Arsène Lupin, Lupin contemporised the stories, but also the fanbase. Assane uses Lupin’s stories as a guide and a bouncing pad to launch forth from, but never forgetting how deeply in love he is with the character. To be part of his world, you must embrace Lupin, which is why he insists his son read and love Lupin, which is why when he needs to find another associate, he heads over to the public library to select one from among those who check out Lupin’s books. You are not just fighting for some idea of justice, but doing it with, and because of a thorough appreciation for Lupin and what he represents.
Lupin is a distinctive addition to the nostalgia project that involves making movies for adults based on books traditionally considered for children.
But what does he represent? Lupin is a gentleman burglar. In the last episode a song plays as Assane triumphs, “He’s the greatest burglar. Yes, but he’s a gentleman.” His being a gentleman isn’t a distinct character trait as much as it is a compensation for his being a burglar, like the “gold-hearted” sex-worker figure. The fact that he is stealing is forgiven, perhaps even made aspirational because of his style. But in Lupin, when the additional racial connotation is established (Assane’s father is a Senegalese immigrant, like Sy’s father himself ) the context muddies more. When Assane steals the Fabergé egg from a widow of an industrialist who worked in the racist, violent regime of Congo, you almost cheer him on — stylish or otherwise. When as a viewer I was made to think that he stole a painting from the Louvre, I almost didn’t mind it. Add to this the fact that Assane never kills, like Lupin never kills. In a New Yorker profile of him he noted how important this was, because he “has five children, ranging in age from three to twenty, and that’s not what he wants them to see on television, especially coming from a Black protagonist.”
Assane tries to embody that slick style of Sherlock Holmes, but he pads it with the anxieties of family life. He has a son, Raul (Etan Simon) from an ex-girlfriend Claire (Ludivine Sagnier) he still has gnawing feelings for. The first part of the first season also establishes the chinks in his moral armour — his infidelity, his keeping his girlfriend in the dark about who he is and what he wants to do, and him being a largely absent father. The triumph of the show is that it doesn’t give him this narrative arc to rectify. We are told it is broken, and it is assumed that it won’t be fixed entirely. The point of the show isn’t to get Assane back with Claire, but to melt any residual rancour that might exist between them.
This allows the show to focus more on high-stake heists, which brings up another distinguishing quality between Assane and Sherlock Holmes — Assane, cucumber cool for the most part, is given nerves of palpable tension before the big moment. In the last episode as Assane is getting ready for the reveal at the velvet bound, Palladian Théâtre du Châtelet, Benjamin has to dust his anxious gaze off, noting that being nervous is his thing.
Lupin is a distinctive addition to the nostalgia project that involves making movies for adults based on books traditionally considered for children. A lot of Lupin thus pairs adulthood with childhood — almost as parallel tracks, as if adulthood is living childhood again, just with messier, more lethal stakes. It also means that a lot of the characters of Assane’s childhood still exist in his adulthood — his best friend, his lover, Pellegrini’s well-intentioned daughter with whom has a fling. (It is the last of the three that isn’t as narratively satisfying — Pellegrini, despite being the embodiment of all evil, loves his daughter, and she loves him back with dove-eyes, but when she is made aware of his infractions, has little reluctance trying to get him to pay for his sins. It is the kind of moral clarity that is so uncinematic, it is almost unbelievable.)
Initially, the tracking shots running parallely — of Assane in his childhood trying and failing to get a violin for Claire, and of Assane in his adulthood trying and failing to get kidnapped Raoul back for Claire — has a bit of a forced edge, because the stakes in the childhood portions seem so miniscule compared to what Assane is dealing with in the present, the police and deep state in tow. But soon such comparisons flatten, till the final chase through the Catacombs — a tunnelled underground site in Paris that holds more than 6 million skulls and remains — tracks both young and older Assane and Benjamin. When life circles back, there is a nice feeling of having lived a full life. But that requires some people to not move on with their lives too. For example, the woman at the ticket desk at the Catacomb who gave the kids her secret map, continues to work at the ticket desk at the Catacomb when the children grow up. After emerging from the tunnels, adults with the police at their coat tails, they finally give her the map they “borrowed” from her all those years ago. She smiles — confused, then amused. Benjamin, who hands over the map, too, smiles. For a second there, he becomes the child, in front of this maternal figure. But then, quickly, his gaze adjusts, and the chase resumes.