Arsène Lupin (2004)

Country: France
Director: Jean-Paul Salomé
Starring: Romain Duris, Eva Green, Kristin Scott Thomas, Marie Bunel, Nicky Naude, Pascal Greggory
Music: Debbie Wiseman

Continuing the tradition of looking at some of the cinematic and literary characters who have provided the template for modern spy stories, today we look at Arsène Lupin. Lupin could be considered the French equivalent of The Saint — having said that, Lupin was actually created before The Saint. Both characters are criminals, but the victims of their crimes are typically criminals who operate above the law. Lupin has been around since the beginning of the last century and appeared in a myriad of books, films, comic and television productions.

Here’s what the knowledgeable contributors to Wikipedia say about the character Arsène Lupin:

Arsène Lupin is a fictional character who appears in a book series of detective fiction / crime fiction novels written by French writer Maurice Leblanc, as well as a number of non-canonical sequels and numerous film, television [shows] such as Night Hood, stage play and comic book adaptations.

A Spanish comic book adaptation

A contemporary of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Maurice Leblanc (1864-1941) was the creator of the character of gentleman thief Arsène Lupin who, in Francophone countries, has enjoyed a popularity as long-lasting and considerable as Sherlock Holmes in the English-speaking world.

There are twenty volumes in the Arsène Lupin series written by Leblanc himself, plus five authorized sequels written by the celebrated mystery writing team of Boileau-Narcejac, as well as various pastiches.

The character of Lupin was first introduced in a series of short stories serialized in the magazine Je Sais Tout, starting in No. 6, dated 15 July 1905. He was originally called Arsène Lopin, until a local politician of the same name protested, resulting in the name change.

Arsène Lupin is a literary descendant of Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail‘s Rocambole. Like him, he is often a force for good, while operating on the wrong side of the law. Those whom Lupin defeats, always with his characteristic gallic style and panache, are worse villains than him. Lupin is somewhat similar to A.J. Raffles and anticipates characters such as The Saint.

Lupin has appeared in at least twenty-one motion pictures, and five television series, the last being in 2007, which was made in the Philipines. Below are the films:

Arsene Lupin

Arsene Lupin 1932

The Gentleman Burglar (1908) with William Ranows.
Arsène Lupin (1914) with Georges Tréville.
Arsène Lupin (1915) with Gerald Ames.
The Gentleman Burglar (1915) with William Stowell.
Arsène Lupin (1917) with Earle Williams.
The Teeth of the Tiger (1919) with David Powell.
813 (1920) with Wedgewood Newel.
Les Dernières aventures d’Arsène Lupin (1921).
813 – Rupimono (1923) with Minami Mitsuaki.
Arsène Lupin (1932) with John Barrymore.
Arsène Lupin Returns (1936) with Melvyn Douglas.
Arsène Lupin, Détective (1937) with Jules Berry.

Enter Arsene Lupin 1944

Enter Arsène Lupin (1944) with Charles Korvin.
Arsenio Lupin (1945) with R. Pereda.
Nanatsu-no Houseki (1950) with Keiji Sada.
Tora no-Kiba (1951) with Ken Uehara.
Kao-no Nai Otoko (1955) with Eiji Okada.
Les Aventures d’Arsène Lupin (1956) with Robert Lamoureux.
Signé Arsène Lupin (1959) with Robert Lamoureux.
Arsène Lupin contre Arsène Lupin (1962) with Jean-Pierre Cassel and Jean-Claude Brialy.

Arsene Lupin 2004

That now brings us to the last cinematic incarnation of the character, where Lupin was played by Romain Duris. The film itself is a ponderous production,  sorely in need of a director who knows how to tell a story. All of the other elements (costumes, set, cinematography, music) for a great motion picture are in place, except for the narrative. Having said that, the film is enthralling for all it’s running time. The pace never slackens, and you’ve got to keep your eyes peeled and pay heed to every utterance from every character, no matter how minor, simply to ascertain what is going on.

I’ll try and paraphrase the plot, but believe me, there is much more going on than these few simple paragraphs will convey. First we meet the boy Arsene Lupin. He is the son of a master thief. One fine day, the police arrive to arrest Arsene’s father, but the rogue escapes on horseback.

Arsène Lupin contre Arsène Lupin 1962

Many years later, Arsene (Romain Duris) has grown into a dashing young gentleman and followed in his father’s footsteps. He is a master thief. On an elegant cruise liner, Arsene is making short work of the many diamond encrusted necklaces, bracelets and ear rings adorning the female passengers on board. Arsene’s handiwork lands him in trouble and he has to make his escape by diving over the side of the ship into the briny blue below. Luckily the ship isn’t too far from shore.

As the film unfolds, we hear about the legend of King Louis’ lost treasure. Well it is not so much lost, but secreted away many years previously by some monks. The key to the location of the treasure is hidden in four gold crucifixes which have been scattered throughout the country.

Arsène Lupin

Arsène Lupin

Arsene acquires a partner, Josephine (Kristin Scott Thomas), and together they start unraveling the clues which will lead them to the treasure cache. But several things stand in their way. The first is a secret society, much like the Illuminati, who wish to find the treasure to enforce their candidate for the throne of France. Not that it is a democratic process, mind you – they simply want to take control – using the treasure, not only as a financial fillip, but also as a symbol of their right to rule.

The second obstacle is the murderous Beaumagnan (Pascal Greggory). Beaumagnan used to be a member of the secret society but was dismissed after having an affair with Joesephine. He now, not only wants the treasure, but also wants a measure of revenge on both the secret society and Joesphine.

Arsène Lupin 2004

Adding to the many layers of plot convolution is that Josephine, who looks beautiful and youthful, is in fact over one hundred years old. She drinks a ‘magic potion’ to keep her youthful.

There are many other characters in the story, but only one other worth mentioning here, and that is Clarrise (Eva Green). Clarisse was Arsene’s childhood sweetheart and provides shelter for him when he is on the run from the authorities. As the story progresses, she is the only character he can truly trust.
Arsene Lupin, as a film, while struggling for coherency in places is a very entertaining trip, borrowing heavily from Fantomas, Indiana Jones, and H.R. Haggard’s She. But of course, Arsene Lupin himself, has a rich history appearing in numerous novels, movies and television series. Arsene Lupin is the type of film that may benefit from repeat viewings, simply because there is so much going on.

4 Comments Posted in Books and Comics, Film and Cinema, Television
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  1. You’ve intrigued me enough to make me want to track this one down, if only to see how the tension between ‘ponderous’ and ‘enthralling’ can be reconciled… my hope is for something like Baz Luhrman’s AUSTRALIA, which had a hundred things wrong with it, great production values and a loopy grasp of story, but which I could still enjoy.

    (Amazon UK has an all-regions import with subtitles. The disc on Amazon France has no subs listed)

    Do you know if the Boileau/Narcejac sequels were ever translated?

  2. Thanks Stephen. I have no idea about the sequels – in fact I have never ever seen a translation of the Leblanc originals.

    But obviously Boileau/Narcejac were highly regarded in their own right, so who knows?

  3. This movie exists between two worlds and sadly neither one seems to like it. The French hated it for having too many Hollywood action scenes and explosions and I would guess that U.S. distributors were scared away from a plot that seems too complicated for the DVD-going public.

    It’s too bad, I think it’s a great movie. That it’s complicated and may need several viewings IMO makes it more of a worthwhile rent/buy.

    Many situations in the movie are from several different short stories, but the book it’s primarily based on is “La Comtesse de Cagliostro” which was translated into English in 1925 as The Memoirs of Arsene Lupin.

    I’d love to see sequels to this particular version, but I’m guessing it won’t happen.

  4. Lupin the Third

    He he he, this plot has been stolen by Lupin III! Come and get me, Pops!

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