Within the first five minutes of Netflix’s new series Lupin, it’s clear that this is a show about more than thievery, disguises, necklaces worn by Marie Antoinette, and rich people looking extremely worried. Adapted from Maurice Leblanc’s tales of gentleman thief and master of disguise Arsène Lupin, the French series is also a case study in using Parisian architecture to interrogate the deep roots of the country’s racism and colonialism.
The very first scenes at the Louvre help establish the visual language of the series. A series of tight corridors corral the flow of cleaning staff (including French-Senegalese actor Omar Sy as Lupin-in-disguise) to lockers set against geometrical beams of concrete, before guiding the cleaners above to the Louvre’s sprawling, Neoclassical halls of art.
Minutes later, and miles away from the center of Paris, a few brief shots of architect Claude Le Goas’s Conservatoire de Montreuil, with its modular, rusty metal tubes piled on top of each other like an ode to Jenga, add a Brutalist touch to the roots of this new adaptation of Lupin. It contrasts with all the columns and marble of the Louvre and sets up a sense of opposition: the outer neighborhoods, where immigrants live, are excluded from those iconic sites of French historical grandeur.
In a bit of important trivia, the contrast also connects the story of our main character, Assane Diop, with the actor Omar Sy’s own roots. Both are the sons of Senegalese immigrants and both grew up in low-income suburban housing projects, giving the series’ exploration of France’s racial divide a powerful tether to reality.
Throughout the initial batch of five episodes, the contrasting visual language silently echoes the narrative. The wealthy, corrupt upper class live swaddled in expansive, airy homes cast in the Neoclassical style. These homes are full of art, which, in one key scene in episode five, is sometimes revealed to have been forged from the blood of those caught in France’s colonialist warpath. For those outside of this elite realm, interiors harden into concrete padded jails and claustrophobic cellars, like the decrepit basement where Assane imprisons a detective. Brutalism, usually praised for its rigid, monolithic beauty, feels like a tool in the show to brutally force the lower class into submission, or remind them of their place in society.
There are countless other examples of Neoclassical and Brutalist architecture helping reinforce the series’ themes as the show goes on, but even as I burned through the show’s first batch of episodes, I couldn’t help drifting back to those first few minutes in the Louvre. For a series about disguises and subterfuge, Lupin’s greatest trick may be using France’s clashing architectural history as a mirror to interrogate the country’s history of classism, colonialism, and racism. — By Chris Erik Thomas