Omar Sy stars as Assane Diop; an enigmatic con-artist whose smooth talking and quick thinking masterfully guides the mystery-drama. TWITTER/CHUCKDEER1

Content Note: This article contains brief mention of suicide and police brutality.

For any language student, the arrival of a show on Netflix in one’s studied language is like a gift from the linguistic deities themselves. Hence my excitement at seeing Lupin pop up in the Top 10 in the UK today. This counts as revision, right?

At first I thought Lupin was going to be a Money Heist type of shindig — I was very much mistaken. French-Senegalese actor Omar Sy stars as Assane Diop, an enigmatic con-artist whose smooth talking and quick thinking masterfully guides the mystery-drama. Inspired by the adventures of the French fictional “gentleman thief and master of disguise”, Arsène Lupin, Sy’s character, sets out on a mission to avenge his late father. Lupin has proved quite the international hit, beating the success of recent favourites such as Bridgerton and The Queen’s Gambit. Its triumph is unprecedented (word of the times) for a French-language show on Netflix.

“Assane’s methods are unorthodox: his charm prevents his targets being reduced to victim. His actions seem justified, his motivations — righteous.”

Sy plays the perfect gentleman, relieving people of their possessions with the confidence and chivalry of someone always one step ahead. The stylish Assane/Lupin rarely resorts to violence — he doesn’t need to. He is a performer, in essence, drawing attention to himself whilst hiding in plain sight. To quote but one example, we watch him brazenly steal from an old lady — tricking her into believing he has been sent to protect “only her most valuable possessions”— yet are reminded not to feel sorry for this damsel in distress, with repeated references to her wealth having been generated during the “good old days in the Belgian Congo”. Assane’s methods are unorthodox: his charm prevents his targets being reduced to victim. His actions seem justified, his motivations — righteous.

The fictional character of Arsène Lupin, gentleman thief and master of disguise, was created in 1905 by Maurice Leblanc. TWITTER/PLANETPHOTON

Lupin has resounded with viewers across the world not just because everyone is in need of a little escapism at the moment. Although the five-part series is fast-paced, funny and frivolous at times, it also grapples with serious themes. A discussion about the role of race and class in modern day French society is subtly weaved throughout the narrative. Like Assane himself, it disarms its viewer through entertainment, employing the guise of this well known children’s detective series whilst subtly turning the spotlight onto a problematic reality.

“Lupin disarms its viewer through entertainment, subtly turning the spotlight onto a problematic reality.”

With flashbacks from the very first episode, the protagonist’s journey to his present occupation is elucidated. A young Assane and his father, Babakar, came to Paris from Senegal after the death of Assane’s mother. His father’s treatment at the hands of a white, wealthy man for whom he worked led to his suicide in incarceration after being wrongfully framed for the disappearance of a prized necklace. Avenging his father’s death becomes Assane’s raison d’être, with diamonds scattered throughout the plot to remind the viewer that he is not a crook on the pursuit of riches, but a good man on an honourable quest for retribution. He side-steps onto the wrong side of the law not to fill his pockets, but to challenge a broken system which does not deliver on its promise of justice.

Omar Sy has used his considerable platform to speak out about racial injustice. Last summer, he denounced the murder of George Floyd in a letter entitled “Let’s Wake Up”. He likened Floyd’s death to the killing of Adama Traoré, a Malian-French man who died in custody in 2016 after being restrained and apprehended by police. The resonances between Assane’s situation and Sy’s own words are striking: “but how many other families, less numerous, less supported, have collapsed under the blows of a deaf justice at their requests, flouting the rights which it is supposed to represent?”

Omar Sy sneaks into the Metro to stick up a Lupin posterTWITTER/FRANCEBLEUPARIS

Systemic racism and prejudice enabled the situation which led to Babakar’s death. But Assane will not allow his father to have died in vain. He uses bias against people of colour as a disguise, transforming it into his own cloak of invisibility. He employs anonymity to break into supposed fortresses of security and society, including a Parisian prison. There he manages to swap places with an inmate, and the ultimate realm of the elites in the heart of the French capital — the Louvre. Sy published a humorous video recently on social media where he sneaks into the metro in Paris to stick up a Lupin poster. Just like in the series, assuming a role stereotypically occupied by unheard and unseen populations allows him to blend unnoticed into the landscape, despite his great notoriety: “you saw me, but you didn’t really look” (“vous m’avez vu, mais vous ne m’avez pas regardé“).

The character of Lupin is said to be to the French what Sherlock Holmes is to the British: a cultural icon, renowned for his class and wit. Juxtaposing a classic of French literature and the realities of modern-day Paris, Lupin deftly explores the experience of Black people in France today. With part two promised soon, we have been left with both food for thought and an avid appetite for more.


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