From fictional French conman to surprise hero

Lupin’s heir: Assane Diop is inspired by a classic French literary hero. © Netflix

Should we be so fascinated by brilliant criminals? A new French drama about a cunning conman has become a massive Netflix hit. But some say Lupin sends entirely the wrong message.

Assane Diop stares at the necklace. It is beautiful; row upon row of pearls and jewels that once adorned the neck of none other than Marie Antoinette.

As a 6ft 2in Black man, Diop normally stands out from the crowd in French high society. But here, dressed in the dull grey tracksuit of a cleaner at the nation’s most famous museum, he is invisible: just one of the many people of colour who arrive at the Louvre every day to work.

Today, invisibility suits him well. As he stands before the jewels with his mop in his hand, Assane Diop is formulating a cunning plan. Soon, the necklace will be his.

This is the opening scene of Lupin, a new French Netflix series that has become a surprise global hit.

Just a week after its release, the show has become the first French-language program to break into America’s top ten most watched list. Now, Netflix believes it will reach an astonishing 70 million people in its first month online.

Lupin tells the story of Assane Diop, a brilliant conman with a heart of gold who uses his charm to pull off a series of stunning thefts in the heart of Paris.

The series’ title comes from the fictional character who inspires Diop’s crimes – France’s answer to Sherlock Holmes, Arsène Lupin, the beloved gentleman thief first invented by writer Maurice Leblanc in 1905.

The two men have a lot in common. Lupin commits his first crime aged just six, stealing the same famous necklace to help his mother after she is treated badly by her boss. For Diop, the robbery is an act of vengeance for his father Babakar, a Senegalese immigrant who was framed for stealing the necklace 25 years earlier, and who later died in prison.

“Assane, whose victims are the same wealthy men and women who despoiled his childhood, isn’t just a worthy heir to Lupin,” says writer Sophie Gilbert. “He’s also a righteous and timely reconfiguration of what it means to be a French hero.”

He may be a new French hero, but Diop is just the latest in a long line of quick-witted criminals who have captured the popular imagination.

Indeed, from folklore classic Robin Hood to Villanelle, the assassin who murders a prominent politician with a single spray of her poisonous perfume in Killing Eve, we have long been fascinated by brilliant and devious crimes.

Even real-life criminals are not beyond our admiration. In 2017, parkour enthusiast and self-confessed art lover Vjeran Tomic was jailed for using a liquid chemical to remove the glass from the windows of the Paris Museum of Modern Art and steal £80m worth of paintings. Even then, the prosecutor admitted that he had a “professionalism that borders on excellence.”

For medieval outlaw expert Thomas Ohlgren, Lupin’s success will have come as no surprise. For a character to achieve criminal hero status, he says, they need a good story. Daring deeds, cunning disguises and narrative suspense are all crucial elements – and Assane Diop has them all.

So, should we be so fascinated by brilliant criminals?

The art of deception

Absolutely not, say some. Assane Diop is not a hero. Fictional shows like Lupin or Killing Eve, as well as dramatisations of real heists such as The Hatton Garden Job, risk glamorising a life of crime. It is wrong to use words such as “clever” and “brilliant” to describe people who shamelessly rob others of their possessions. Criminals deserve condemnation, not praise.

It is harmless escapism, say others. Crime dramas are so popular not because they portray hardened criminals but because they show ordinary people outsmarting the most sophisticated security systems in the world. The thrill of heist stories comes from the momentary crossover of hero and villain. Assane Diop may be a thief – but he is also a gentleman; a moral man redressing society’s wrongs.

You Decide

  1. Is Assane Diop a hero?
  2. Do two wrongs ever make a right?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are in charge of looking after Marie Antoinette’s necklace. In groups, draw a diagram showing all the security measures you would introduce to protect the necklace from thieves.
  2. Write a short story about a stunning heist from the perspective of a brilliant criminal. Then write the same story from the perspective of one of the victims.

Some People Say...

“Fictional good is boring and flat, whole fictional evil is varied and intriguing, attractive, profound and full of charm.”

Simone Weil (1909 - 1943), French philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that race is a common theme throughout Lupin’s five episodes. Race allows Diop to blend in as a cleaner, but it also makes him stand out, beyond suspicion, when he turns up at the museum as a tech entrepreneur at the necklace’s auction. In another scene, dressed as a policeman, he reclaims diamonds looted from the Belgian Congo. “The locals were sitting on a fortune,” the jewels’ elderly owner tells Diop unashamedly. “We just helped ourselves.”
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds whether producers and writers need to change the way they make crime dramas. In 2018, film journalist Catherine Shoard argued that Hollywood should stop making heist movies that portray robberies as a type of art. Instead of focusing on the criminals, films should focus on the victims – the security guards who lose their jobs, the bystanders who are traumatised and even the insurance companies.

Word Watch

Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette was the last Queen of France. She was guillotined during the French Revolution. The necklace in the Netflix series is based on a real diamond necklace gifted to Marie Antoinette, which is now missing.
Arsène Lupin
The fictional Lupin is a master of disguise and a genius thief who often breaks the law for the greater good. Actor Omar Sy, who plays Diop, says Lupin is his dream role.
Childhood
In the series, Diop has flashbacks to racist incidents in his childhood. In one scene, when a donor pays for him to attend a private school, another student tells him: “I didn’t know they let janitors in here.”
Robin Hood
The legendary outlaw depicted in English folklore who lived in Sherwood Forest and evaded the Sheriff of Nottingham to steal from the rich and give to the poor.
Killing Eve
George Kay, the British writer behind Lupin, also wrote two episodes of Killing Eve.
Vjeran Tomic
Tomic, who in his youth stole from wealthy apartments in Paris, was jailed for eight years for stealing five paintings. He decided not to steal a sixth after the painting “spoke to him”. His exploits were compared by journalists to those of Robin Hood and Lupin himself, but the prosecutor said he was “nothing of a gentleman”.
The Hatton Garden Job
A 2017 film based on the events of April 2015, when four elderly men burgled nearly £200m from the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Company in London.
Sophisticated
Impressive, complex.

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