The audience longs for stories about racial harmony, which is why the French comedian Omar Sy has become internationally known. He made a name for himself in The Intouchables (2011), the story of a poor, young, black man who brings a rich, white paraplegic back to life. This friendship across racial and class lines made it the most popular French film of this generation, in France and around the world, so much so that it was re-shot in Hollywood with Kevin Hart.
Such stories are so successful not only because they calm racial relations and thus our common humanity, but because they ignore politics. The story of the Intouchables, about an ancient French aristocrat who befriends an immigrant from Senegal, makes us wonder what France is all about. It is certainly not about De Gaulle, Pascal and Descartes, as the film suggests, or about the great writers, painters, scientists and intellectuals. It’s paragliding and driving fast cars.
But doing daring deeds is not itself clear. Does the poor but manly black intend to give the rich but crippled white man some masculinity back? Do they share a proud rebellion against a cosmic injustice – man’s natural weakness, mortality, and the limits of our will? Or is masculinity really unimportant and instead humanity is somehow concerned with finding joy in life itself together, free from society and its burdens?
Perhaps these questions don’t concern the audience. Viewers will draw their own questions and conclusions. Those who admire masculinity can consider this a comic book version of Invictus. Those who don’t can look to the egalitarian aspect. Whoever wants to revive old France can enjoy this dream; But those who want to end this and have a new France instead can smile at this story too.
Theft and justice
Netflix seeks to answer these questions in its hugely successful, action-packed new adaptation of the story of master thief Arsène Lupine, the great, daring gentleman thief of the Belle Epoque. Arsène Lupine is now Assane Diop, played by Omar Sy, the son of a Senegalese immigrant whose life is ruined by an evil, rich, white French. Hope for race and class harmony is dashed at the beginning of the show when the father is driven to jail and suicide by the nasty, ungrateful accusations made by his employer. The only question is how radical the attack on the French regime will be.
We begin with an attack on the aristocracy: Diop’s father, a perfect gentleman, was blamed for stealing a necklace by the evil man whom he loyally served. He died in prison never to see his son again – a rather romantic story reminiscent of Hugo and Dumas. This is not just about low class immigrants facing injustice – it is also a warning that loyalty and belief in high principles are deadly. Perhaps we can no longer have noble heroes.
The son therefore grows up split against himself – a spontaneously joyful big bunch of a man who is also tormented by poverty – both French and a member of the criminal underclass. He stands tall and proud – but humbled by the memory of his father’s guilt, which has been officially established, although he cannot believe it himself. Accordingly, Sy Diop plays like a saint bearing the burden of French sins. Maybe a pious savior.
It takes a great deal of conflict to make Diop one with himself, either champion or enemy of France. He is his father’s son, convinced that decency in terms of education and moral attitude is absolutely necessary – he aspires to be a gentleman. But he is the child of today’s France. It contains a mixture of democratic enthusiasm for the extravagant wealth and happiness of celebrities and the oligarchical thirst for power seen in the very tight control of high institutions.
Here we see one of the show’s flaws: The very gentlemanly father gives his son one of Maurice LeBlanc’s lupine novels as a gift to inspire his education. This is part of what leads Diop to lead a life of theft that his father was falsely accused of. Not only does it make no sense that the morally serious old man should inspire such a life, but Diop also gives the novel to his own son.
Diop wants to shock the entire system of elite institutions in his pursuit of private justice, but to do that he would have to learn to respect the public and gain their trust through public actions.
The show continues to insist on this nonsense by adding a touch of desecration, which of course is the official religion on Netflix: we see the young Diop in his Catholic school receiving a Bible just to replace its core and his favorite adventures of the Lupins in the church to hide covers. Presumably, this suggests that he rejects France’s highest beliefs and morals, only showing himself outwardly to deceive the authorities. How is that for the foundation of moral heroism?
Apart from the symbolism, Diop is provoked to today’s Lupine when he suspects that his father is neither a thief nor a suicide, but a victim. This lifelong suspicion, his feelings of guilt and anger at everything that refused him all encouraged him to search for the truth – but also for revenge. So he starts stealing the priceless necklace that his father was accused of selling. By punishing those who hurt him, he can regain self-respect.
Here we see another attack on the aristocratic claims of the French oligarchy. The people rich enough to run the Louvre and bid for jewelry auctioned there despise the people who clean up the place so much that they expose themselves to sabotage. Diop stages the theft by taking advantage of the seriousness of the serious, which makes them blind. First, Diop works with a trio of French criminals to dress up as supervisors and rob the auction. He uses the smug ignorance of the security guards, the suits, to sneak in. Then he uses trash to piss them off for them to let him go, and he escapes with the treasure because it is being treated as inviolable. The rich rely on the poor to be honest, but they despise them too much to scrutinize.
The theft may be a fluke – the onslaught of events, the urgency, the high stakes, the danger to life – but it is in fact the only real evidence that Diop has thought deeply about France’s problems. He is master of events because he understands the weaknesses of the rich and the poor alike, which he leads both to defeat themselves. This one delightful moment also shows the superiority of the mind over violence. This violent heist succeeds without a lot of technology – the rich are too complacent to call for an arms race – all it takes is daring and calculation. This complacency is a coping mechanism: in order to defend themselves, the rich would have to admit that they fear the poor, that their place in the social hierarchy is in jeopardy.
Here we see Diop’s ambition and its limits. He cannot really trust the poor because they are as evil and greedy as the rich and unwilling to obey the call of nobility or justice. His henchmen cannot be modern Robin Hoods because they have no self-respect – they are arrogant, but they do not recognize Diop’s natural size, in fact they underestimate him in the same way as the authorities.
The criminals he recruits into his program are just as exploitative as the rich and also use violence against the weak. This is a typical (perhaps too Marxist) criticism of the oligarchy that has some value. But it remains unclear why there is a society under such conditions. It is one thing to say that Diop is a master of disguise, but another that he is the only man who is aware of the exploitation at work everywhere
Lupine moves on to a series of conflicts between Diop and his archenemy, the man who destroyed his father, who hires the police, the press, and murderers to make his bids. Diop works with a journalist who tries to reveal the truth in order to awaken France to this very unnatural exploitation, but fails weakly. He is a master in the shadows, but when it is time to face the public, his judgment and ability to understand his opponent fail completely. Here the show is transformed from set pieces of action and funny capers into a dark, violent thriller.
Lupine thus follows a wonderful but amoral coup with a very moral, but misguided, even silly crusade. This suggests a very limited understanding of politics. Diop can show how crimes corrupt and blind the judgment of even the proverbial “good thief”. Deceiving others means despising them for being so easily tricked.
Diop is beginning to believe that you can lie to anyone without consequence, but that everyone will listen when the time comes to shout the truth. How can a master of disguise not suspect that his archenemy could also be practiced in the art of deception? He is blinded by his own self-righteousness and simple-minded anger. But how can he be so foreign to the France he lived in? There we see the price paid for his rejection of his moral claims!
Diop wants to shock the entire system of elite institutions in his pursuit of private justice, but to do that he would have to learn to respect the public and gain their trust through public actions. This would make him an honest man and an advocate for democracy. The first half of his adventure, already available on Netflix, shows his passed out failure to do so. The second half of the adventure, due to be released later this year, must show us whether he is realizing his revolutionary dreams and whether they are as admirable as his pursuit of justice suggests.