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‘Lupin’ is a thrilling heist series, but it goes deeper than that

Omar Sy as Assane Diop in Netflix's “Lupin.” (Emmanuel Guimier/Netflix)
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Note: This post contains plot details from Netflix’s “Lupin.” Possible spoilers ahead.

In Netflix’s “Lupin,” debonair con man Assane Diop (Omar Sy) attempts to avenge his father’s death. Assane follows a unique blueprint in his criminal exploits: the adventures of Arsène Lupin, the iconic fictional “gentleman thief” created by writer Maurice Leblanc.

The French series gets off to a thrilling start as Assane plans an elaborate heist at the Louvre, where a storied necklace is set to be auctioned off. We learn that Assane’s father, Babakar — a widower who immigrated to Paris from Senegal with his son — died in prison after he was falsely accused of stealing the necklace from his wealthy and powerful employer. “Lupin” weaves Assane’s tragic past with his present-day deceptions and the inspiration behind them: Flashbacks show a teenage Assane becoming fascinated with Lupin after reading Leblanc’s 1907 story collection, “Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar.”

As Assane learns more about his father’s alleged crime and conviction, his schemes play out in splashy, exciting and, occasionally, wildly unrealistic ways — which is to say “Lupin” is, at first glance, your typical heist series. What makes the show truly compelling is its subtle commentary on race and xenophobia. We see it from the show’s opening scene, which shows Assane reporting to the Louvre for work as a janitor, alongside a group of largely Black and Brown contractors. It’s a striking image that becomes central to his planned caper at the Louvre; Assane tells his accomplices that his employers see him “but they don’t really look” at him.

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“Everyone on that side of town, everyone on the top while we’re on the bottom, they don’t look,” Assane says. “And thanks to that we’re going to be rich.”

Racism similarly permeates scenes from Assane’s childhood. When Assane first meets Madame Pellegrini, whose husband employs Babakar as a driver, she initially doesn’t recognize him, locking the door as Babakar and Assane approach her car. Her teenage daughter objectifies Assane upon meeting him, asking if it’s “true what they say about Blacks.” After Babakar’s death, the orphaned Assane attends an exclusive private school (surreptitiously paid for by Madame Pellegrini); his classmates taunt him, calling his skin “a costume” and joking that they didn’t know the school admitted “janitors.”

As an adult, Assane anticipates the racism he experiences from those around him and uses it to his advantage. Some of his deceptions rely on the likelihood that he will be mistaken for other Black men — including by the detectives assigned to investigate the heist at the Louvre. Other cons play on the discomfort White people feel when it comes to race and racism. Posing as an IT staffer to get access to the corrupt police commissioner who investigated his father’s case, Assane feigns offense when his credentials are questioned.

“Lupin,” the latest in a string of works inspired by Leblanc’s gentleman thief, has been a popular addition to Netflix’s lineup. It landed on the streamer’s Top 10 list in multiple countries — including the United States and France — following its Jan. 8 debut, becoming the first French series to do so. According to Deadline, the show is primed to top early viewership for “Bridgerton” and “The Queen’s Gambit,” two of Netflix’s most-watched recent offerings. (Part 1 of “Lupin” ends on a nail-biting cliffhanger but a post-credits promo promises “Part 2 is coming soon.”)

The well-reviewed series has faced some criticism for its focus on the French capital’s predominantly White circles — a decision the filmmakers suggested, in a recent New York Times feature, was intentional: “I liked the ‘gentleman thief’ aspect a lot but I wanted to subvert it and give it a social angle,” French director Louis Leterrier, who helmed the first three episodes, told the paper. “I found the idea of a 6-foot-2 Black man sneaking around in both high society and the underworld interesting.”

British screenwriter George Kay, who created and wrote the French-language series, told the Times that Assane’s targets “are the French establishment and the old school.”

With Lupin as his muse, Assane maintains a moral code even as he cons his way across Paris. One of his early crimes, shown in flashback, appears to contradict that code. Posing as an undercover detective, he persuades an elderly woman to give him her most precious valuables to thwart a supposed burglar. It’s a crime seemingly unbefitting of a gentleman thief until we get the backstory of the woman’s treasures, which include a rare Fabergé egg.

The woman tells Assane that her husband “assisted with the extraction of diamonds in the Belgian Congo.” “The good old days,” Assane says with a knowing smile. Ignoring the brutal repercussions of Africa’s diamond trade, the woman notes that “the locals were sitting on a fortune and they didn’t even realize it.” She tells Assane that she and her husband “just helped ourselves.”

“Their loss, right?” a still-smiling Assane says.

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