In “Lupin”, Omar Sy gives a new twist to a classic French tale

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In 2011, a star turn in the French blockbuster “Les Intouchables” propelled Omar Sy to the César for best actor and to a budding career in Hollywood, with roles in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “Jurassic World”. .

That success made Sy, who was born near Paris to West African immigrant parents, the kind of star a production company as powerful as Gaumont might ask about his dream roles.

“If I was British I would have said James Bond, but since I’m French I said Lupin,” Sy said in a recent video call, in French, from his home in Los Angeles. “He’s a player, he’s smart, he flies, he’s surrounded by women. Moreover, it is a character who plays characters. For an actor, it’s the best.

A few years after that conversation with Gaumont, a five-episode episode of Sy’s new French-language series, “Lupin,” debuted on Netflix. Less than a week later, the show, a stylish hug in the heart of Paris, has become the streamer’s second most popular title in the US, the first time a French series has debuted in the Top 10. , according to Netflix. A second episode has been filmed and is expected to follow later this year.

Except there’s a twist: Arsène Lupine isn’t a character in the series that bears his name — at least not in the flesh.

But now, many American readers are probably wondering “Wait…Lup-who?”

Created by French writer Maurice Leblanc in 1905, Arsène Lupin is an elite member of the gang of delightful thieves known as the Gentleman Thieves. Like Thomas Crown, Danny Ocean, Simon Templar, and (to include one nice lady) Selina Kyle, Lupine is sleek and efficient. He prefers disguise and persuasion to violence and is so dashing that his victims almost thank him for the honor of being robbed.

The hero of many short stories and novels, Lupine was first seen as the French answer to a certain British detective; Leblanc even cheekily wrote unauthorized crossover stories featuring a certain Herlock Sholmès. France alone has produced several television adaptations and films about the thief. An entire generation can still sing the theme song from the show that aired in 1971-74. A splashy film from 2004 starring Romain Duris.

Lupine is also a popular character in Japan, where in the 1960s mangaka Kazuhiko Kato, known by his pen name, Monkey Punch, invented a grandson named Lupine III. This Lupine has become the subject of several anime adaptations, including Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature film, “Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro”, and the recent 3D version “Lupin III: The First”.

Sy, 42, does not play Lupin but a debonair Parisian named Assane Diop, son of a Senegalese immigrant, who idolizes the fictional thief. Sy, who is also credited as an art producer, acknowledged that when he first offered to base a project on Lupin, he mostly knew about the character’s reputation.

“Honestly, it was just something you had to know, part of the culture,” he said. “Later I made the connection between the books, the TV shows I saw as a kid and some manga. I got totally hooked while working on ‘Lupin’.

George Kay (“Criminal”), the show’s British creator and showrunner, said in a video chat that he was more familiar with other early 20th century pop culture creations like Sherlock Holmes, Scarlet Pimpernel or AJ Raffles. when he was brought.

“But when I was told Netflix wanted to do it with Omar Sy, he was attached, the combination of those two things made me really interesting,” Kay said. “Because there are a lot of things about Lupine that I love: the tricks, the downsides.”

French filmmaker Louis Leterrier (“The Transporter”, “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance”), who directed the first three episodes of “Lupin”, was one of the first members of the creative team, before the idea is pitched to Netflix. . (The series was produced by Gaumont for Netflix.) He said it took some time to focus on a concept.

“Our first step was figuring out where we wanted to go,” Leterrier said in a video call. “Does Omar actually play Lupin?” Is it contemporary or classic?

In the end, “George Kay came up with an idea that we all loved,” he added. “We wanted to see Omar in all his humanity and experience of the myth, rather than calling him Arsène Lupin and doing something that had already been done.”

When we meet Sy’s Assane, he is obsessed with getting revenge for his widowed father (Fargass Assandé), who died 25 years earlier. The elder Diop, who worked hard to give his son the tools he needed to succeed in French society (starting with the importance of correct spelling), killed himself in prison after being accused of theft, leaving young Assane an orphan. Assane’s most prized possession became a Lupine book given to him by his father, a gift that would shape his entire life. (The series is subtitled “In the Shadow of Arsene”.)

Like Leblanc’s rapscallion, the adult Assane flies and gets out of trouble thanks to his silver tongue and his talent for metamorphosis. But don’t expect hyper-realistic latex masks à la “Mission: Impossible” – Assane is decidedly low-tech, befitting the series’ deliberately dated fleet feet.

“Lupin was a keen observer of society and we wanted Assane to be the same,” Sy said. “He doesn’t need much to disguise himself: he joins the kind of people who don’t stand out, and he disappears.”

When Assane sets out to steal a heavily guarded necklace from the Louvre, for example, he alternates between impersonating a janitor and impersonating a wealthy art lover attending an auction. In the first case, he becomes invisible, a Black among many others; in the second, he exploits the fact that he stands out in a sea of ​​white faces, distracting his marks.

“I really liked the ‘gentleman thief’ aspect but I wanted to subvert it and give it a social angle,” Leterrier said. “I came up with the idea of ​​a 6-foot-2 black man weaving his way through both high society and the underworld.”

Kay jumped at the chance to slip in statements without being overbearing. “Having a Franco-African ethnic lead is very important,” he said. “The character’s targets are the French establishment and the old school, and we play these dramas in these very classic Parisian settings.”

Indeed, Assane is very aware of how mainstream French society perceives him, and he often uses these prejudices to deceive his victims. The show also sends a sly message by having the most dedicated fans of Lupin’s books be of African and North African descent, or biracial.

For Sy, “it’s about putting a new face on what it means to be French today,” he said. “The archetype has changed.”

Whether cultural or familial, the idea of ​​transmission runs throughout the show. For fans of the original stories, there is no shortage of Easter eggs. On a more intimate level, Assane inherits his father’s Lupine obsession. He then passes it on to his own teenage son, Raoul (Etan Simon), whose mother is white, as a way to connect and smooth out a sometimes difficult relationship.

“It’s the first time I’ve played this kind of father, who has a lot of baggage and questions,” said Sy, who has five children of his own. “I’m always interested in fatherhood. It’s not easy, and you don’t know if you’ve been a good or bad father until your kids are grown.

For Sy, Leblanc’s old stories serve as a sort of bridge within the series. Lupin’s book helps Assane relate not only to his father but also to his surroundings, and Assane wants it to have the same impact on Raoul. Culture, like family, is a way of belonging.

“The idea of ​​legacy moves me – what do we retain and what do we pass on?” he said “To me, that’s the real meaning of life, what makes us human.”

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