“Vu et regardé”: Lupin Steals the Show

Robin Walz, University of Alaska Southeast

Netflix’s Lupin, about a crafty criminal-avenger named Assane Diop whose escapades are inspired by Maurice Leblanc’s gentleman-cambrioleur Arsène Lupin, was a surprise international hit. In the streaming series,Assane Diop is a thief and con man who seeks vengeance against wealthy businessman Hubert Pellegrini for the death of his immigrant Senegalese father, Babakar. A private chauffeur, Babakar was framed by Pellegrini for the theft of his celebrated possession, Queen Marie-Antoinette’s necklace. Arrested and incarcerated, Babakar died in his prison cell under suspicious circumstances. In response, Assane becomes a criminal avenger who adopts numerous disguises and contrives fantastical escapades in an effort to restore his father’s reputation, all while evading police. In an interview on the eve of the series release, lead actor Omar Sy expressed doubts that Lupin would gain much attention outside the Francophone world.[1] Still, he was excited by the opportunity to play a role inspired by Arsène Lupin, for him the French equivalent of James Bond. At the same time, Sy pointed out, Assane Diop was not Arsène Lupin, but a twenty-first-century hero.

Netflix released Lupin: Dans l’ombre d’Arsène on January 8, 2021. By the end of the month the series had become a sensation with over 70 million viewers worldwide, the only subtitled French series ever to place in Netflix’s top ten internationally.[2] Nearly all reviewers noted this was the first time a screen character modeled on Arsène Lupin was being played by a Black actor, the tremendously popular Omar Sy, but American reviewers commented more extensively on how Lupin addressed race. Writing for Essence magazine, Kyra Aurelia Alessandrini declared the series “groundbreaking in its representation of Black characters.”[3] Acknowledging that the series is foremost an action-based mystery, Alessandrini praised it for calling attention to racial discrimination in the French criminal justice system and to the persistence of colonial attitudes among French business and political elites.

Within France, Lupin received a more mixed reception.[4] There was general agreement that Lupin is a well-made crime-thriller, greatly enhanced by the charm of Omar Sy. Yet reviewers lamented that this slick production, realized by blockbuster director Louis Leterrier (Transporter, The Incredible Hulk, The Clash of The Titans) and co-written by Netflix regulars George Kay and François Uzan, lacked the sophistication of Leblanc’s gentleman thief.While Sy was applauded for bringing his typical panache to the role of Assane Diop, the episodes were faulted for formulaic dialog and stereotyped characters.

The distance between Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin and Netflix’s Assane Diop spans more than a century, from short stories published in Pierre Lafitte’s monthly Je sais tout in 1905 to a Netflix streaming series in 2021. What has enabled the long shadow of Arsène Lupin to reach across the twentieth century and into the twenty-first?


Maurice Leblanc created Arsène Lupin under conditions dictated by the popular publishing industry. In February 1905, publisher Pierre Lafitte inaugurated Je sais tout, an illustrated encyclopedic monthly that featured articles on contemporary politicians and the colonies alongside regular notices on arts, science, and sports, and original literary works. Inspired by the popular success of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective, Sherlock Holmes, Lafitte sought a detective or criminal character that could bring popular and financial success to Je sais tout, much as Holmes had done for The Strand Magazine.

Laffite’s head of finances and publicity, Marcel L’Heureux, suggested that his friend, Maurice Leblanc, the son of a Norman business family who had been writing stories and feuilletons for Gil Blas and the popular press, could accomplish the task. At L’Heureux’s prompting, Leblanc submitted “L’Arrestation d’Arsène Lupin” to Lafitte for what he believed would be a one-off but Lafitte proposed an entire series. In financial straits at the time, Leblanc accepted.

In November 1905, Je sais tout announced a forthcoming series of “surprising, mysterious, unexpected, original and exciting adventures by the brilliant crook, ARSÈNE LUPIN.” [5] The magazine promised these tales would adhere to the highest literary standards and predicted that their author, Maurice Leblanc, would become the French Conan Doyle. Under series banner “La vie extraordinaire d’Arsène Lupin,” Je sais tout published seven short stories by Leblanc between December 1905 and July 1906. Reader responses about new installments were solicited with promises of cash prizes: “How will Arsène Lupin escape?” “Who will be the next victim of Arsène Lupin?” “What historical jewel, already made famous in a celebrated affair, will Arsène Lupin steal?”[6] At the conclusion of the initial series, Je sais tout announced that the ingenious thief would soon return with even more astonishing adventures.

The follow-up series in Je sais tout, “Les nouvelles aventures d’Arsène Lupin,” delivered on Lafitte’s promise that Leblanc would become the French Conan Doyle.[7] In the new stories, Inspector Ganimard invites “Herlock Sholmes” to Paris to help capture Arsène Lupin. But the British detective and his bumbling sidekick, Mr. Wilson, are repeatedly outfoxed by the clever criminal. Over the course of three decades, Leblanc wrote twenty volumes of Arsène Lupin novels and short stories, enhancing his celebrity as an author, augmenting publisher Pierre Lafitte’s profits, and delighting avid readers.


Arsène Lupin’s identity assumed many guises. “Son portrait? Comment pourrais-je le faire? Vingt fois j’ai vu Arsène Lupin, et vingt fois c’est un être différent qui m’est apparu…” (“His likeness? How can I trace it? I have seen Arsène Lupin a score of times, and each time a different being has stood before me…”).[8] In the original short story collection, Arsène Lupin, gentleman-cambioleur, he adopts the identities of Viscount Raoul d’Andrésy, Count Bernard Andrézy, clochard Désiré Baudru, mysterious train passenger Guillaume Berlat, Italian Chevalier Floriani, former Inspector Grimaudan, the magician Rostat, Russian Prince Serge Rénine, and celebrated seascape painter Horace Velmont. In later stories, he posed as aristocrats, foreign dignitaries, businessmen, detectives, ordinary figures such as a jeweler, painter, and boxing instructor, or simply a “friend of Maurice Leblanc.”[9]

Behind these multiple identities, the question remains: who is Arsène Lupin? It was not until 1924 that Leblanc gave him a definitive origin story in La comtesse de Cagliostro. Arsène-Raoul Lupin is the son of Henriette d’Andrésy, an aristocratic daughter of Normandy, and Théophraste Lupin, a gymnast, boxer, fencing instructor, and con man. Arsène preferred the identity of Raoul d’Andrésy, aligning himself with his mother’s aristocratic sensibilities even as he benefitted from his father’s physical prowess and skills at dissimulation. This fictional genealogy reveals the influence of other popular writers upon Leblanc, particularly Alexandre Dumas and Gaston Leroux.[10]

Leblanc invented other fictional characters, but his popular acclaim was bound inextricably to Arsène Lupin. Yet if Leblanc could not escape Lupin, the same was not true for his character, who crossed borders and was reinvented over the course of the next century. Arsène Lupin, gentleman-cambrioleur has been translated into multiple European and Asian languages, as well as Arabic and Armenian. Today, there are Wikipedia pages devoted to Arsène Lupin in thirty-four languages.[11] Other twentieth-century writers created pastiches that included Lupin as a character, most notably the sequels by crime-writing team Boileau-Narcejac.[12] Lupin was also reinvented for stage and screen. In 1909, Leblanc collaborated with playwright Francis de Croisset on Arsène Lupin, widely reviewed across France. Ten Arsène Lupin movies were produced for early cinema in Britain, Germany, Hungary, Japan, and the U.S., as well as France. France made its strongest film claim on Arsène Lupin after WWII with Jacques Becker’s Les Aventures d’Arsène Lupin (1956), starring Robert Lamoureux. But it is probably the Arsène Lupin téléfeuilleton, broadcast in 1971 and starring Georges Descrières, that most deeply engraved the Belle-Époque character in modern memory.

Arsène Lupin has enjoyed a transnational resurgence in the twenty-first century, with entirely new stories in multiple languages and media. One of the most successful is the youth fiction series Sherlock, Lupin & Me, penned in Italian by “Irene Adler” (the woman who outsmarted Sherlock Holmes) and translated into French and English.[13] Japan has been at the forefront of Lupin media for the past half-century with Lupin III. The grandson of Arsène, this master-of-disguise thief, technology wizard, gang leader, and romantic avenger is a manga character created by Kazuhiko Kato (aka Monkey Punch), whose popularity skyrocketed through televised anime, full-length feature films (including Hayao Miiyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro, 1979), and video games. Today, it is Lupin III, not Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin, who dominates commercial markets worldwide.


Lupin is the latest addition to a century of serialization. There are pronounced sympathies between Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin and Lupin’s Assane Diop. Both are clever thieves, masters of disguise who readily inhabit the skin of others. Each delights in concocting ingenious devices to commit their crimes: secret passageways, ruse messages, cryptograms, and newspaper announcements in an earlier age; electronic gadgets and television broadcasts today. Both are snappy dressers, although Assane has swapped out Arsène’s tuxedo, cape, and top hat for a Louis Vuitton overcoat, beret cap, and Jordan Air Force 1s.[14] Each character repeatedly evades police capture, temporarily submitting to imprisonment as part of a more elaborate scenario. Each is motivated by familial and intimate loyalties on the one hand, and a desire to mete out justice against personal enemies on the other. Both are pseudo-anarchists, fierce individualists whose criminal exploits are more entertainments than challenges to the established social order.

As the series’ subtitle “In the Shadow of Arsène” suggests, Leblanc’s character continues to excite nostalgia. Leather-bound Arsène Lupin novels embossed in gold leaf appear in every episode, signaling the gentleman thief’s elevated status as a national treasure. The passing of Arsène Lupin stories to children by parents and grandparents is recalled when we see Babacar instill a passion for Arsène Lupin in Assane, who in turn hands it down to his son, Raoul.[15] Intertextual references in the Netflix series abound, beginning with The Queen’s Necklace, whose theft and falsification are central in two Arsène Lupin adventures. Character names are recycled, with obvious alliterations between Assane and Arsène, his wife Claire and Clarisse (Arsène Lupin’s wife), their son Raoul and Raoul d’Andrésy (the principal aristocratic identity of Arsène Lupin), and the Pelligrini (Joséphine Pelligrini, the Countess Cagliostro) as series villains.

The apex of Lupin nostalgia occurs in the fifth episode. After a reconciliation between Assane and Claire, the happy family drives to the Norman coast—the setting of many Leblanc novels—so Raoul can take part in Arsène Lupin Day festivities in Étretat. There, children costumed in black capes, ball masks, and top hats play on the beach. The family happily joins in, until Raoul is kidnapped by one of Pelligrini’s henchmen, just as Arsène Lupin’s son, Jean, was abducted in the finale of La comtesse de Cagliostro. Assane reneges on the promise to reform his criminal ways as he attempts to save his son and punish Pelligrini, providing a bridge to the forthcoming Lupin: Partie 2, which echoes Arsène Lupin’s reaffirmation of his criminal status after the Countess Cagliostro poisoned his wife and absconded with his son. Through such intertextual references, scriptwriters George Kay and François Uzan rely on viewer familiarity with Leblanc’s stories to animate their series.

At the same time, there are great distances between Arsène and Assane. Arsène Lupin is an aristocratic son of Belle-Époque Normandy, a privileged insider who esteems himself above the crowd. Assane Diop is the son of Senegalese immigrants, a twenty-first-century outsider who struggles to find a place within French society. That Assane is Black is central to his role, not incidental. Throughout the series, he plays on the simultaneous visibility and invisibility of Black men in French society, whether as a suave, financially successful art collector, or an unskilled janitor and deliveryman. In interviews, Omar Sy captures this aspect in the phrase, “Vous m’avez vu, mais vous m’avez pas regardé” (“You saw me, but you didn’t really look”), which Netflix France humorously exploited to launch Lupin. In an online advertisement,Sy, one of the most popular personalities in France, pastes large-format posters in the Métro, unrecognized by oblivious passengers waiting for their trains.[16]

It is one thing for Netflix to use Black invisibility as a plot device and advertising scheme, and quite another to give the issue political resonance. Prior to the release of Lupin: Partie 2 (Season 2 in the U.S.), Omar Sy recounted his Mauritanian and Senegalese immigrant family’s story in an interview with The Guardian, speaking openly about his experiences of racism growing up as a teenager in Trappes, a Paris suburb, and his encounters with police.[17] Personal experience shifted to the politics of race when the interview turned to an open letter Sy had written the previous year for L’OBS (formerly Le Nouvel Observateur). In a public appeal published in French and English, “Réveillons nous”/“Let’s Wake Up,” Sy connected the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 to the death of Adama Traoré, who died during police detention in the Parisian suburb of Beaumont-sur-Oise in 2016.[18] Drawing parallels between the American and French events, he highlighted community outrage over biases in the judicial system and the political failure to redress police brutality against Blacks. Sy urged readers to speak out against racism and police violence by signing an online petition.

A focus on race is not new for Omar Sy. He became a radio and television comedian shortly after finishing lycée, performing satirical routines with Fred Testot on Jamel Debouze’s late-night SAV program on Canal+. After a 2012 César for Best Actor in Intouchable made him a celebrity, Sy moved to Los Angeles to break into Hollywood, only to find that his French accent was a greater barrier in America than being Black. Concurrently, he continues to work in the French film industry, taking roles that emphasize Black lives and history. Most notable is Chocolat (2016), a fictionalized biopic loosely based on the life of Raphael Padilla, the Black entertainer from an enslaved Afro-Cuban family featured in the Belle-Époque slapstick comedy team, “Chocolat et Foottit.” In a 2021 interview, when asked about the implicit commentary on racism in Lupin, he responded, “It’s not the main thing that’s gonna come when I pick a project, but I know as soon as I’m gonna act, and [it’s going to] be a part of the project…because it’s my sensitivity.”[19] The role of Assane Diop can be seen as a continuation of this trajectory in Sy’s acting career

Some French media critics have complained about the series.[20] For such a lavish production, Les Echos grumbled, Lupin amounts to a “mediocre B movie.” Le Point lamented that Netflix’s pursuit of American “Wow!” had killed the myth of Arsène Lupin. Le Figaro insisted that it was not Sy’s place as an entertainer to attack the police because of a few brebis galeuses (“black sheep”). Among more reflective commentators, philosopher Sandra Laugier drew the two parts of the series together in Libération, moving from an emphasis on the invisibility of minorities in early episodes to addressing racism and reparations in later ones.[21] She reminded readers, yet again, that Assane Diop is not an incarnation of Arsène Lupin, but a new kind of cambrioleurjusticier,whose audacity exposes the roots of social injustice in an ethnically diverse France. Beyond fidelity to Maurice Leblanc’s character and nostalgia for Georges Descrières’s classic portrayal, Laugier praised Lupin for giving expression to “la force politique de la culture populaire,” a subversive act that is nonetheless incomplete without accompanying political action.

For fans who cherish Maurice Leblanc’s gentleman-cambrioleur, the Netflix Lupin series may be a disappointment. But for those who live fully in the twenty-first century, it is remarkable that Arsène Lupin, whose cultural memory for more than a century has been passed down, rewritten, and transformed, continues to inspire. Assane Diop is not a figure of nostalgia, but an avenger hero for our age.

George Kay and François Uzan, Lupin. Netflix France, 2021.

Primary sources

Jacques Becker, dir., Les aventures d’Arsène Lupin (1956), starring Robert Lamoureux, France. 104 min. B&W. Gaumont (2012).

Jean-Pierre Decourt, dir., Arsène Lupin (1971), starring Georges Descières, France. 26 episodes, 52 min. B&W. Pathé Télévision/Mars International Productions (2010).

Je sais tout: Magazine encyclopédique illustré, monthly, 1905-1907.

Maurice Leblanc, Les aventures d’Arsène Lupin, gentleman-cambrioleur, 8 vols.(Paris: Hachette/Gallimard, 1961).

_____. Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Thief, intro. Michael Simms (New York: Penguin Classics, 2007).

_____. Arsène Lupin vs. Countess Cagliostro, trans. Jean-Marc Lofficier and Randy Lofficier (Encino CA: Black Coat Press, 2010).

Hayao Miyazaki, dir., The Castle of Cagliostro (1980), Japan, 109 min. Color. Manga Entertainment, 2000.

Roschdy Zem, dir., Chocolat, starring Omar Sy and James Thiérée, France. 110 minutes. Color. Gaumont (2016).


“Centenaire de la naissance d’Arsène Lupin (1905-2005),” 813, Les amis de la littérature policière 94 (2005).

Jacques Baudou, “Filmographie lupinienne,” Enigmatika 2, “Dossier Arsène Lupin” (April 1976):39-40:

Didier Blonde, Les Voleurs de visages. Sur quelques cas troublants de changement d’identite: Rocambole, Arsène Lupin, Fantômas, & Cie (Paris: Éditions Métalié, 1992).

Jacques Derouard, Maurice Leblanc: Arsène Lupin malgré lui (Paris: Librarie Séguier, 1989).

Dominique Kalifa, “Illégalisme et littérature, le cas Arsène Lupin,” Cahiers pour la littérature Populaire 13 (Winter 1991-1992):7-21.

Étienne Leterrier, “Cagliostro (1743-1795) inventeur d’Arsène Lupin,” Cahiers d’études Romans novelle série 34, no. 1 (2107):85-99

Francis Lacassin, “Arsène Lupin ou du cambriolage comme un service public,” in Mythologie du roman policier, vol. 1 (Paris: Union Générale d’Éditions, 1974).

Matthieu Letourneux, Fictions à la chaîne: Littératures sérielles et culture médiatique (Paris: Seuil, 2017).


[1] Jérémy Patrelle, “J’ai un mot d’ordre, c’est plutôt la fermer, et quand je l’ouvre, c’est que je n’ai pas pu faire autrement,” interview with Omar Sy, GQ France online, January 8, 2021.

[2] Marius Chapuis and Julien Gester, “Séries françaises: ‘Lupin’ l’enchateur,” Liberation online, January 15, 2021; and, Lauren Collins, “The Formidable Charm of Omar Sy,” The New Yorker online, June 13, 2021.

[3] Kyra Aurelia Alessandrini, “Why the Success of ‘Lupin’ Matters,” Essence online, updated January 25, 2021.

[4] Norine Raja, “La série ‘Lupin’ fait-elle honneur au gentleman cambrioleur?” Vanity Fair French edition online, 7 January 2021; Thomas Sotinel, “Omar Sy dépoussière le costume d’Arsène Lupin,” Le Monde online, 8 January 2021; “‘Lupin’: Que penser de la nouvelle série Netflix avec Omar Sy?” Paris Match Belgique online, 11 January 2021.

[5] Advertisement, Je sais tout, November 15, 1905:512.

[6] These translated concours questions appear in French in Je sais tout: December 15, 1905:672; January 15, 1906:742; and February 15, 1906:116.

[7] “La Dame blonde” and “La lampe juive,” Je sais tous, November 15, 1906-April 15, 1907 and September 15–October 15, 1907. This novella and short story were subsequently reissued as Arsène Lupin contre Herlock Holmes (Lafitte, 1907).

[8] Maurice Leblanc, “L’arrestation d’Arsène Lupin,” in Les aventures d’Arsène Lupin, gentleman-cambrioleur, vol. 1 (Paris: Hachette/Gallimard, 1961), p. 295; English translation, “The Arrest of Arsène Lupin,” in Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Thief (New York: Penguin Classics, 2007), p. 17.

[9] “Les noms de Lapin” are detailed under in Didier Blonde, Les Voleurs de visages (Paris: Éditions Métalié, 1992), pp. 145-150.

[10] Alexandre Dumas’s La collier de la reine (1849-1850) and Joseph Balsamo (1853), and Gaston Leroux’s La double vie de Théophraste Longuet (1902). See Dominique Kalifa, “Illégalisme et littérature, le cas Arsène Lupin,” Cahiers pour la littérature Populaire 13 (Winter 1991-1992): 8-9; Étienne Leterrier, “Cagliostro (1743-1795) inventeur d’Arsène Lupin,” Cahiers d’études Romans novelle série 34, no. 1 (2107): 85-99; and, Blonde, pp. 114-118.

[11] According to the OCLC WorldCat database, Arsène Lupin, gentleman-cambrioleur has been translated into Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, German, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic and Armenian. Wikipedia language-based websites extend these languages to Catalan, Czech, Esperanto, Greek, Lithuanian, Luxembourgish, Romanian, Russian, Swedish, Ukrainian, Hindi, Indonesian, Malay, Thai, Vietnamese, Azerbaijani, Egyptian Arabic, Hebrew, Kurdish, Persian, and Turkish languages. Given that ephemeral paperback imprints are poorly conserved in major library repositories, and Wikipedia pages are authored by enthusiasts, the global popularity of Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin likely exceeds the languages listed here.

[12] Boileau-Narcejac [pseudo. Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud aka Thomas Narcejac], collection “Le Masque” (Paris: Librarie des Champs-Élysées): Le secret d’Eunerville (1973), La Poudrière (1974), Le second visage d’Arsène Lupin (1975), La justice d’Arsène Lupin (1977), Le serment d’Arsène Lupin (1979).

[13] Irene Adler [pseudo. Alessandro Gatti], Sherlock, Lupin e io, 22 vols. (Milan: Edizioni Piemme, 2011-2020). Thirteen books have been translated into French and four into English.

[14] Balla Fofana, “Aux pieds d’Omar Sy dans ‘Lupin’, les Air Jordan 1 suscitent un assaut de clics, Libération,February 3, 2021; and, Alexandra Marshall, “How Lupin’s Omar Sy Became an International TV Sensation,” Vogue online, photography by Jonas Ungera, June 11, 2021.

[15] See “L’influence familiale” in 813, Les amis de la littérature policière 94, “Centenaire de la naissance d’Arsène Lupin (1905-2005)” (2005):7-8.

[16] Netflix France, “Quand Omar colle les affiches de Lupin incognito,” posted to YouTube, January 12, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHSTUI4D58I.

[17] Tom Lamont, “‘My parents still have no clue what I’m doing’: Lupin star Omar Sy on Hollywood, Fame and Fighting Racism,” The Guardian online,May 30, 2021.

[18] “L’appel d’Omar Sy: ‘Réveillons nous. Ayons le courage de dénoncer les violences policières en France,” and “‘Let’s wake up’ by Omar Sy,” L’OBS online, June 4, 2020.

[19] Drew Blackburn, “Omar Sy Talks Lupin and Racism in France and the U.S., and Learns about Black AF1’s Bad Reputation,” GQ online, July 12, 2021.

[20] Laura Berny, “‘Lupin’: une suite qui manque de panache,” Les Echos online, June 10, 2021; Philippe Guedj, “‘Lupin, partie 2’: au voleur, rendez-nous le mythe!” Le Point online, June 14, 2021; and, “Omar Sy ne regrette pas sa tribune dénonçant les violences policières,” Le Figaro online, June 1, 2021.

[21] Sandra Laugier, “‘Lupin’, deuxième!” Libération, July 1, 2021.