The character Arsène Lupin, “gentleman thief,” first imagined in 1905 by writer Maurice Leblanc, has approximately the status in France that Sherlock Holmes has in English-speaking countries.
Though only a minority of French people have actually read any of the Lupin books, everyone is familiar with the top-hat-and-monocle-wearing Belle Époque figure. And like Holmes, Lupin has been interpreted and reinterpreted many times, in films, TV series (the European-Canadian coproduction Arsène Lupin in the 1970s), mangas and now in the internationally successful Netflix series Lupin, released this month.
Created by British writer George Kay and produced by French film studio Gaumont, Netflix’s Lupin stars Omar Sy, the immensely popular star of 2012′s Les Intouchables (The Untouchables), for which Sy won a César Award. The character’s renown, Lupin’s status as a classic figure of French literature, Sy’s position as France’s favourite actor and the somewhat hip, aspirational image of Netflix in France has created a perfect storm to gather multigenerational appeal here.
Someone of my father-in-law’s generation, for example, born in post-Second World War France, would be likely to watch Lupin because it is a French production, based on a French classic. My (French) husband was interested in the remix because he remembers (though is not sure if he actually watched) the series from the 1970s and can even hum Jacques Dutronc’s theme song. Younger French viewers would be drawn by the likable, handsome Sy, the fast-moving heist plot and the pride of having a French series on Netflix.
For non-French viewers, there is also the romance of the French scenery – but within limits. Though the five episodes currently available on Netflix make the most of glamorous shots of the Louvre, luxury hotel Le Meurice (which stands in for a residence) and the dramatic cliffs of Étretat in Normandy, the series’s intention, as Sy said in a promotional video, was not to be a French postcard (unlike the postcard-strewn Netflix series Emily in Paris).
Indeed, in flashbacks, we see that Sy’s character, Assane Diop, grew up in a banlieue, one of Paris’s poorer suburbs, the son of a Senegalese chauffeur. When we first glimpse the adult Assane, who models his exploits on Leblanc’s suave master of disguise, he is working as a janitor.
French critical reception of Lupin has been mixed. Le Monde saluted “a contemporary, lively, lighthearted adaptation,” and French film magazine Première found Sy “perfect” in the “excellent” series. But Le Point magazine regretted “a script and characters as hollow as the Needle of Étretat.” Marianne magazine, in an unusually long, withering review, cited a “dreary recreation” that “leaves a bitter taste,” rendering a “hopelessly flat encephalogram” (ouch). French GQ offered left-handed compliments: “an excellent surprise … the best French series on Netflix.”
On Twitter, French viewers’ responses have been overwhelmingly positive, both about the series and Sy’s performance. Even Edwy Plenel, former Le Monde editor-in-chief and founder of investigative website Mediapart, tweeted his enthusiasm.
There were, however, perhaps predictably, some objections to the casting of Sy, the son of West African immigrants, in a role that was inspired by a white character. In a tweet that has since been deleted by Twitter, a supporter of the right-wing National Rally party wrote, “A Black woman as James Bond, Omar Sy as Lupin, what’s next, [French Black Lives Matter activist] Assa Traoré as Joan of Arc? Let’s stop this idiocy of modifying our European classics to please minorities.”
This brings up the curious position of Sy, who contributed the original idea for the series. There are few (no?) other Black French actors who have achieved his level of success. Recent Black Lives Matters protests in France – only the latest of many race-related disturbances – confirm that the country has not grappled with entrenched inequalities. Nevertheless, in a 2016 survey taken by the Institut français d’opinion publique for the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche, Sy was found to be the favourite male personality in France, down only to No. 2 in subsequent years. One can still say, though, he is France’s favourite male actor, since the reigning No. 1 personality is singer Jean-Jacques Goldman.
A 2016 Libération profile of Sy addressed exactly this point. “In a fragmented, fractured, even shattered France … Omar Sy is loved. Madly. By bobos [bourgeois bohemians] to populists.” At a time of rising nationalism in France, Libération wondered, how did this Muslim son of African immigrants become the “national security blanket,” a “Band-Aid for society,” a “reconciler?”
But Sy was having none of it. “Carrying all of that would be a crazy lack of humility,” he told the newspaper. “I’m touched by this recognition, but it doesn’t belong to me.”
Still, by helping to dream up a project that puts a relatable Black actor into the realm of a “European classic,” Sy is at least posing questions, expanding perceptions. Who would have thought a popular entertainment inspired by a monocle-wearing Belle Époque dandy could do as much? It’s a tribute to the shape-shifting, century-spanning talents of Leblanc’s creation.
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