Omar Sy plays a shapeshifter in the Netflix series Lupine. Emmanuel Guimier / Netflix Hide Caption
Emmanuel Guimier / Netflix
Emmanuel Guimier / Netflix
The French love their pop culture, but they have never been the best at exporting it. Take the Arsene Lupine case, den Gentleman thief Created by the writer Maurice Leblanc in 1905. Lupin’s adventures spawned countless French books, films, and television series, but until a few months ago most of the people I know had never heard of him.
That all changed with the arrival of the Netflix series Lupine, an intoxicatingly energetic international hit, the second season of which kicks off on June 11th. This French series, created by British television writer George Kay, does what the show for the genius Parisian thief Sherlock made for the greatest consulting detective in the world. That makes it contemporary. Kay took a pop franchise that felt a bit musty and gave it a 21st century vortex – its hero is now black, not white.
The charismatic one Omar Sy plays Assane Diop, the son of a wrongly imprisoned Senegalese immigrant who gave him the novels of Arsène Lupine to read as a boy. With them as a kind of instruction manual, Assane has grown into a criminal virtuoso and master of disguise who, like Robin Hood or Roger Moore in The Saint, breaks the law, but manages to stay on the side of the angels. He and longtime love Claire (Ludivine Sagnier) have a teenage son, Raoul, whom they both love.
Season 1 began with Assane carrying out a dazzling heist at the Louvre. He hopes this robbery will help eradicate the criminals who did his father’s life. It does, and while the cops take his breath away, Assane keeps following new leads, a process that requires various jailbreaks and kidnappings. Everyone is involved in these gimmicks, from a corrupt police villain to a bitter investigative reporter to Hubert Pellegrini, a dark mogul played by Hervé Pierre with mischievous pleasure.
At the beginning of the second season, the network around Assane is getting tighter. Not only did one of Pellegrini’s thugs kidnap his son, but he was also tracked down by a police officer who is also a big fan of Arsène Lupine. Once the bad guys pressure Claire as well, it seems impossible that Assane can get away from everyone who is after him.
But of course we know he will. One reason Arsène Lupine became popular in the first place is because he’s an entertaining fantasy of shape-shifting brilliance. The show offers us the pleasure of watching Assane get out of seemingly inevitable situations by putting on a fake mustache, doing a mysterious computer trick, or performing a ridiculously complicated plan that requires 10 things to run right – which of course everyone does . This is not a show for die-hard realists. It’s a confection that has speed, cool attitudes, good acting, and a very winning performance from Sy, a tall, handsome man who exudes such warmth, kindness, and spirit that we are always by his side.
Now it is difficult to change the race of a famous hero. For example, if you want a Black James Bond, it’s not enough to just cast, let’s say: Idris Elba |. You either have to pretend his race doesn’t matter at all in Eton and Her Majesty’s Secret Service – which would be whitewash – or you have to find a good way to make Bond’s blackness part of the story.
The show plays with the fact that blacks are so often invisible to the white majority. One reason Assane’s disguises work so well is because when he disguises himself as a janitor or delivery man, the people he is deceiving don’t see him as a person who counts. It’s just part of the background.
In updating the Lupine saga, Kay realized that if the hero was Black, the story would make the story richer and more of our moment. For starters, the show plays with the fact that blacks are so often invisible to the white majority. One reason Assane’s disguises work so well is because when he disguises himself as a janitor or delivery man, the people he is deceiving don’t see him as a person who counts. It’s just part of the background.
And although it carries its politics very lightly, Lupine is steeped in a racial awareness, be it a bigoted shopkeeper trying to ruin the young Assane or an old woman chatting about the glory of colonialism. It is no coincidence that villainous racist Pellegrini hides his gangsterism behind a patriotic foundation that allegedly promotes multiculturalism.
It is also no coincidence that the policeman who grasps the connection between Assane and the original Lupine is of Moroccan descent himself. Without emphasizing it, Lupine takes on the irony that these two cultural outsiders are actually more French than the French in their love and knowledge of France’s great gentlemanly thief. And in perhaps an even more revealing irony, it is the black lupine that the world now knows.