I mentioned in a post a while back how my tastes in literature and movies were influenced – among a myriad of other things – by the 1970s French/European series about the exploits of Arsène Lupin.
Maurice Leblanc wrote 17 novels, 39 shorter works and 5 comedies about Arsene Lupin, between 1907 and 1941 (and one was published posthumously), and he created for the French audience a character with the cultural impact and weight of a Sherlock Holmes or a Tarzan, with a touch of Gallic anarchy and darkness.
Like Raffles and more than Raffles, Lupin was the archetypical gentleman thief.
The character was brought to the screen a number of times, and as portrayed by the late, great Georges Descrieres in the old TV series was a perfect modern-day swashbuckler, winning through smarts and not just brown.
In the last week, my brother dug out our collection of DVDs of the series, and started watching them – turns out he never saw it before. I can hear him laugh from where I sit.
So, to relax last night I re-watched the 2004 movie version, and latest incarnation of the Maurice Leblanc’s character, Arsène Lupin, as directed by Jean-Paul Salomé.
Let’s start by saying that this movie, distributed internationally as The Adventures of Aersène Lupin1, looks like a million dollars – great costumes (over 500, 20 just for the male lead), great sets and mise-en-scene, great use of CGI (about 400 shots were digitally modified or enhanced).
A pity the plot is so confusing.
There’s a lot of stuff going on, an awful lot of plots, subplots, counterplots.
This probably comes from trying to cram into a single – if long (2 hours and 11 minutes) – movie elements taken from no less than 5 Maurice Leblanc novels.
Lupin, competently portrayed by Romain Duris, is stealing from the rich to keep for himself, is trying to stay one step ahead of the police, is looking for the man who killed his father, is on the tracks of three mysterious crucifixes that lead to a lost treasure, loves beautiful Clarisse de Dreux-Soubise (Eva Green) and becomes a pawn in the machinations of the (possibly) immortal femme-fatale and hypnotist the Countess of Cagliostro (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Busy lives, these gentlemen thieves.
So busy, in fact, that keeping all the moving pieces in mind as the plot unfolds requires a certain amount of concentration on the part of the viewer. And while the action pieces are breath-taking (there’s an acrobatic steal that’s absolutely great) and well choreographed, and the mass scenes are beautiful to behold, nobody likes to lose track of who’s who and what’s what while watching an adventure thriller.
On the other hand, Arsène Lupin is not properly an adventure thriller.
There is melodrama, and romance, in this movie, a small portion of occult and supernatural, and a certain arthouse flair is also part of the deal.
Busy lives, these gentlemen thieves.
The cast is excellent – and if young Romain Duris seems sometimes a little lost in this role of master criminal and romantic hero, alternatively daring, insouciant and bedazzled, Scott Thomas and Green are not only beautiful but absolutely great in their roles (and you have to listen to them in French to appreciate their skill2), and Pascal Greggory as the ambiguous Beaumagnan comes very close to steal the show.
What is missing the most, for an old fan of the TV series, is the humour – classy comedian Descrieres was an older but much lighter Lupin than the Duris version, and a little lightness would have helped the movie.
It is still worth a look, for the cast, the costumes, and the music. While sadly inferior to the sum of its parts, it can still be quite entertaining on a rainy night of Walpurga.
Stopping the DVD once in a while to try and keep track of all the comings and goings helps.
On the other hand, anyone coming to this movie with only Monkey Punch’s take on the character in Lupin III is in for a big shock.
And as a bonus here’s the suite for the soundtrack, which as I said is quite good.
And in case you’re interested, the works of Maurice Leblanc featuring Arséne Lupin are available online through the Project Gutenberg, and are certainly worth a look. This is, after all, the original Gentleman Thief.
Some of the stories also feature Herlock Sholmes – because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (or maybe his heirs) did not like Leblanc’s appropriation of Holmes at all, and menaced legal action, so the French writer just transposed one letter – et voilà!