“Do not tell me the truth.” The request is peculiar but no more than the situation — and the man asking. Assane Diop is at sea. The odds are mounting against him, and his confidante is pointing out just how dire things are. Diop, who is played by the unjustly cool leading man Omar Sy, looks wounded by this reality check. “You’re my best friend,” he explains. “Comfort me. Do not tell me the truth.” Truth, after all, is malleable and unpleasant to Diop, something he bends and something he evades. This swashbuckling hero may be the most suave liar on television.
One of Netflix’s greatest successes, the French series Lupin is about a gentleman thief following in the footsteps of Auguste Lupin, an extraordinary character concocted by writer Maurice Leblanc in the early 1900s. Instead of making a show about Lupin, this adaptation by George Kay and Francois Uzan inventively centres around a man who loves the Lupin books to such a perilous degree that he considers them bibles. He commits elaborate, damnably cheeky crimes a la Lupin, and the only person close to catching him is another Lupin admirer who recognises the tributes.
This approach — doffing a top hat to the gentleman thief while never claiming to represent him — is a brilliant trick, allowing audiences who may not know Arsene Lupin to nevertheless cheer for the Lupin hero. We recognise the passion of being a fan.
The first five episodes released this January, and the well-heeled and scrupulously polite criminal won over audiences wary of subtitles to become the most watched Netflix series this year. The second set of five episodes came to us last week, and I am pleased to report Lupin, like a gorgeous leather-bound hardback, remains as satisfying as it does stylish. The show feels both old-world and authentically modern — at once timeless and timely — and it’s genuinely hard not to smile at the screen as the plot unravels.
The smile is because we know it’s a lark. The plot — for all its circuitousness, and meticulous arranging of twists and flashbacks — demands but one thing of the viewer: an eager suspension of disbelief. Like the audience at a magic show watching performers work mirrors and angles and get applauded for flashy little miracles, we want to believe this ineffably stylish man can saunter into a museum and steal a priceless painting at will, and return it as discreetly as he likes. Pleasure trumps plausibility.
This set of episodes sees Diop on the run, first to retrieve his kidnapped son and later fleeing the policemen of Paris as a fugitive wanted for murder, yet our hero keeps finding time for niceties, and for setting up future sleight-of-hand. We see more of Diop as a young boy getting better as a ‘gentleman thief’, the ongoing narrative of each episode marching in lock step with a flashback, lessons of the past coming good in the present all too neatly. This neatness nearly gets on the nerves, the predictable coming together of the loop out of place among today’s fractured TV narratives, but the self-contained nature of each episode, bookended by setups and callbacks, works well for Lupin’s attempt to deliver a more nostalgic pleasure.
“Aren’t you a little too old?”, a man asks a growing boy reading one of the Lupin books — one where Lupin takes on a version of another literary icon, here named Herlock Sholmes — and the boy turns to him with despair. The idea that one can be considered too old for a good adventure story is a heartbreaking one. Parts of Mathieu Lamboley’s rollicking background score in Lupin are reminiscent of Ray Parker and Tom Szczesniak’s theme from the old Tintin animated series. This show evokes the elusive thrill of being young and discovering a gripping yarn, a sensational story with rapacious villains, overwhelming odds and a hero too good to be true.
Where to begin with Omar Sy? He is, above all, the exceedingly rare leading man who can wear smugness with grace. He can make eye-contact with a woman and smile in the assured inevitability of her making her way to him, yet this doesn’t seem forced or narcissistic or unearned. Sy gives Diop a stealthy, buttery smoothness, and this serves the frequently camouflaged character well as he darts from persona to persona, altering body language. Forever slippery, forever elegant.
Lupin pointedly shows how a black man — even this hulking, conspicuously tall man — can find anonymity in a city like Paris by swiftly disguising himself as a labourer and not getting a second look. A vanishing act isn’t always magical, though this well-tailored series, where Sy spins his cufflink into place as he strides into the climax, is all about tricks and flair.
Lupin contains a lot of narrative magic, but more than that, it revels in peeling back the curtain to show the audience how the illusion is performed. Here lies the show’s actual trick: the explanation of how a painting is heisted (or not heisted) is even more preposterous, even more outlandish than the heist in question, but this conjures the illusion of an “aha!” moment. Being taken into confidence is its own thrill, a secret satisfaction. Everything else is done with mirrors.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.