Francophilia finally comes to Netflix.
By Leena Kim
Until very recently, French content on Netflix left un petit peu to be desired. It hasn’t been a barren landscape, exactly, but the genre hadn’t quite reached the level of American success as shows and films from some other foreign nations (see: Korean dramas and the Spanish hit Money Heist). And no, Emily in Paris does not count.
Now, the Breton tides have turned. Take the critical and commercial successes of Lupin and Call My Agent! The former, which premiered on Netflix earlier this month, is projected to hit 70 million views in its first 28 days, surpassing The Queen’s Gambit, and the latter, whose fourth and final season dropped on the streaming platform last week, has been around since 2015 but is finally getting the international attention it deserves.
The acclaim is warranted; these two shows are excellent. But there’s also the perpetual American obsession with all things French and especially anything with Paris as a backdrop, which is even more wanderlust-inducing during this era of quarantine and border lockdowns. This truth undoubtedly explains Emily in Paris‘s outsize, if polarizing, popularity last fall. Refreshingly, these shows are free of tired clichés about Parisian life, and hopefully indicative of what’s to come. Netflix has made a clear commitment to investing in France: last year the streaming behemoth opened sprawling new headquarters in Paris and pledged to double its investment in French productions and partnerships.
But until then, put these two gems in your queue ASAP.
Arsène Lupin is as indelible to the cultural canon of France as Sherlock and Bond are to England. For those unfamiliar with this gentleman chief and master of disguise, created by novelist Maurice Leblanc in 1905, think of him as an early 20th-century Danny Ocean, except that Lupin works alone and only robs those who really deserve it—usually severely ethically challenged one percenters. There have been countless adaptations of the character, in TV, film, theatre, video games, literature, even a Japanese manga series.
In this latest iteration—Lupin recently became the first French show to make it onto Netflix’s top 10 list—the title doesn’t refer to another remake of the original figure, but rather the inspiration and a driving force for the main protagonist, Assane Diop. Played by Omar Sy, Assane has been a Lupin super-fan ever since childhood when his father introduced him to the books. In the present day, he uses Lupin’s documented exploits as blueprints for a grand plan of his own: to steal Marie Antoinette’s necklace from the Louvre. It’s not for personal enrichment but revenge: twenty-five years ago, Assane’s father Babakar, an immigrant single parent working as a chauffeur for a wealthy family, was framed by its patriarch of stealing the prized jewel and sent to prison, where he died of an apparent suicide, leaving young Assane orphaned.
A few years ago, Sy, who rose to superstardom after his performance in 2011’s Les Intouchables—he became the first Black recipient of the César award for Best Actor—was asked about his dream role by the major French film studio Gaumont. “If I were British, I would have said James Bond, but since I’m French, I said Lupin,” he told the New York Times. And so Lupin was born.
George Kay, a writer on Killing Eve, is the show’s creator and Louis Leterrier, the filmmaker behind The Transporter, directed the first three episodes. Only five episodes of the first season were released this month, though Netflix has just announced that the second installment will premiere this summer.
Lupin is an irresistible caper and a highly binge-able mystery. To watch Assane, with his Catwoman-like guile and Bond-esque charisma, glide through the streets of Paris as effortlessly in three-piece suits as he does in Air Jordans is a delight. But the show has many more dimensions. First, it deftly tackles race (and racism) without necessarily dwelling on it. Assane is well-aware of how his race affects society’s perception of him and uses this as a valuable tool for his subterfuge. In the first episode, for example, he alternates between disguising as a cleaner at the Louvre and a tech entrepreneur attending a high-end auction. In janitor’s clothes, he hides in plain sight; in a tailored suit, he’s the center of attention.
At its core, Lupin is also a story about love and family. Perhaps that’s what makes Assane different from, say, 007, whose occupational hazards leave little room for much else besides hyper-macho masculinity. Assane, au contraire, has a huge heart—a real 21st-century gentleman, indeed.
Call My Agent!
Heart is also at the center of Call My Agent!, the sharp-witted dramedy-slash-satire about a group of elite French agents who manage the careers—and foibles—of their A-list clientele. Co-created by former talent agent Dominique Besnehard, Call My Agent! (Dix Pour Cent in French, in reference to the 10% cut agents receive), which just wrapped its fourth and final season, features a who’s who roster of French stars who play exaggerated, silly, and slightly ridiculous versions of themselves.
Each episode, named for the cameo-making celebrity, is centered around putting out whatever outrageous fires said A-lister has started (or, oftentimes, that her agent has accidentally started on her behalf), plus all the contract negotiations, creative disputes, diva antics, and general schmoozing in between. Isabelle Huppert tries to film two movies at the same time without getting caught for violating her contract. Juliette Binoche rips an extravagant gown made for her for Cannes and flubs her opening speech. Monica Bellucci searches for a new boyfriend. Jean Dujardin can’t seem to come out of his last role, choosing to stay in character, sleep in a hut, and eat rabbit (in an undeniable parody of Leo DiCaprio and Revenant). Sigourney Weaver is displeased with her suite at the Hôtel de Crillon. Charlotte Gainsbourg gets roped into a subpar sci-fi flick because her agent didn’t screen the script in advance.
Watching celebrities act out is fun, no doubt, and the show is particularly adept at finding the right balance between satire and levity without veering into meanness, each episode almost always ending with a neat resolution—at least for the stars.
Running as an undercurrent throughout the series are the intertwining professional and personal lives of the motley crew that works at the agency (called ASK)—there is temperamental Andréa, bourgeois-bohemian Gabriel, grande dame Arlette, and manipulative Matthias, plus their arrogant boss Hicham and the agency’s assistants Camille, Hervé, Noémie, and Sofia. The power struggles and backstabbing that take place between these individuals are never-ending, but at the same time every character gets an earnest redemption arc. Matthias, who in season 1 refuses to acknowledge Camille as his daughter (from an extramarital affair), becomes a doting father. Hicham is much less of a terrible boss. Commitment-phobe Andréa embraces monogamy and motherhood. And as much as they all manipulate and fight and yell, there is real love there—love between friends, love between a father and daughter, love for their stars, love for cinema and the craft.