Among the many comic delights of Lupin, the French heist series that premiered on Netflix earlier this month, is an unspoken one. Time and again, the show’s hero, master thief Assane Diop (Omar Sy) is able to slip into a place unnoticed, or by assuming a minor disguise that prevents witnesses from providing an accurate description of him to law enforcement. Why is this funny? Because Omar Sy is six feet three (and, since most actors are short, seems even taller), is roughly as wide as soccer pitch, and is devastatingly handsome even before he opens his mouth to flash a million-Euro smile. This is not a man for whom anonymity should be possible — even allowing for racial bias in a majority-white country, Assane would be memorable and distinctive — and Lupin seems cheekily aware of this. Like the various incredible sleights of hand Assane deploys to pull off his thefts and escapes, his ability to be anyone, anywhere, is treated more as a superpower than as something even the world’s greatest criminal would be able to pull off. We know this is impossible, the show seems to be asking its viewers again and again, but isn’t it so much fun?
Created by George Kay in collaboration with François Uzan, both the show and the character of Assane take their inspiration from Arsène Lupin, a gentleman thief created in 1905 by French author Maurice Leblanc. Assane’s Senegalese-immigrant father Babakar (Fargass Assandé) gave him a Lupin novel at a formative age, and Assane treats the Lupin stories as his own personal Bible. (In a flashback, he even hides one of the books inside the hollowed-out pages of an actual Bible to get away with reading it at school.) Assane will perform spectacular crimes, and gain revenge against wealthy businessman Hubert Pellegrini (Hervé Pierre), whom he blames for Babakar’s death. But he will do it with style, just like his literary hero.
Kay, Uzan, and directors Louis Leterrier and Marcela Said do an impressive job of keeping the tone mostly light while also treating Assane’s quest to hurt Pellegrini — and the collateral damage caused by this mission — with the utmost gravity. The story bounces around in time, not only showing us Assane’s childhood before and after Babakar’s death, but revisiting aspects of each heist afterward to reveal exactly how he pulled it off. (In that respect, Leterrier’s experience directing the first Now You See Me film comes in very handy.) This kind of fractured narrative could easily get confusing, but the story itself has so much energy that it all flows together nicely. The show even pulls off the neat trick of making subplots about Assane’s ex-wife Claire (Ludivine Sagnier) and often-neglected teenage son Raoul (Etan Simon) feel vital to understanding and appreciating Assane, when on other genre shows, this kind of material can feel like a buzzkill distraction from the reason we’re all here.
Mainly, though, it all works because Sy is so magnetic and charming that questioning plot logic feels wildly besides the point. Though he never looks appreciably different in his various aliases (including one ill-conceived live-TV appearance done under old-man makeup and a thick beard), he changes his posture and voice(*) enough to allow for the willing suspension of disbelief, in the same way that Christopher Reeve once did when playing Clark Kent. But Sy and the show are at their strongest when Assane is just being his own Superman self, utterly relaxed and confident in his own skin, and so captivating that Claire can’t really resist him despite ample reason to.
(*) While some international shows available to stream in America work roughly as well in dubbed form, Sy’s vocal performance is dramatically stronger and more varied than his English-language counterpart. The subtitled version is absolutely the way to go, at least when Assane is onscreen.
The fifth and final episode pulls one last trick on the audience, this time with an unexpected cliffhanger. But it’s almost immediately followed by a title card promising, “It’s Official: Part 2 Is Coming Soon.” In the streaming world, the question of when, or if, certain shows will return can be as mysterious as the means by which a man like Assane Diop can steal a priceless necklace. If nothing else, it’s smart for Netflix to let viewers in on enough of the trick that they don’t freak out waiting for this addictive story to continue.