Arsène Lupin

Arsène LupinSynopsis: A retelling of the glamorous life of Arsène Lupin, the celebrated jewel thief of belle époque Europe. Tired of boring rural life at the family’s luxurious castle in Normandy, Arsène’s father instructs him to steal a particularly necklace once worn by Marie Antoinette. Once the necklace is passed off to his father, Arsène goes to sleep, only to wake the next morning to discover his father dead and the family cast out.

Still on the run from the law as an adult, Arsène returns to his childhood home and, with a false name, takes a job as the Duke’s martial arts teacher. One night, though, he spies on a gathering of Royalist plotters as they condemn to death the Countess of Cagliostro. Lupin saves her and thus begins their intertwining fates. Decades fly by and historical events whirl around them as their mutual dependency–sometimes as lovers, sometimes as enemies–deepens.

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Arsène Lupin 7.25

eyelights: the cast. the set design. the costuming.
eyesores: the pace. its convoluted plot.

“The man I’m waiting for is Arsène Lupin… You’re not yet that man.”

‘Arsène Lupin’ is a motion picture loosely based on the Arsène Lupin novels by Maurice Leblanc, notably ‘La Comtesse de Cagliostro’ and ‘L’aiguille creuse’. Released in 2004, this moderate European co-production starred Romain Duris, Kristin Scott Thomas, Pascal Greggory and Eva Green.

It’s essentially a slick retelling of the story of the gentleman thief, from his youth in 1882 to his later life in 1913. The crux of the film, however, takes place in 1897, and follows Lupin as he tries to prevent the mysterious Countess of Cagliostro from stealing three valuable crucifixes.

His origins are established right from the onset, with his father a savate master, showing him how to fight. When the police come for the elder Lupin, accusing him of being a thief, he escapes – only to later return and advise his son on how to become a world class thief just like him someday.

Fast forward to 1897 and Lupin is on a large ocean liner, carefully sneaking jewelry off all the rich women he can get close to. After making a daring escape, he goes to visit his ailing mother at the hospital and reconnects with the cousin whose family lodged him – and on whom he’d crushed.

Clarice helps him escape the police and takes him back to her family home, a massive mansion in the countryside. There Lupin becomes aware of a conspiracy involving his uncle, various authorities, and the Cardinal, who are interrogating the Countess and planning her execution.

Naturally, Lupin saves her from a horrible death and nurses her back to health. Then he chases after his uncle, steals a valuable crucifix that they’ve taken from her, followed by a second one, during a large cathedral wedding. All he needs to do now is find the third one, and reveal their secret.

Except that the Countess is both a friend and a foe – one moment his lover and the next his foil. And they are both continually hounded by Beaumagnan, whose intentions are also shifty. Lupin has to outdo both of them and their accomplices –and avoid the authorities- if he wants to succeed.

He’s in for a wild ride. As is the audience.

Frankly, I was enjoying this take on Arsène Lupin for the first little while: the picture is fun, vibrant and looks quite good. Plus which the cast is pure delight. But I eventually grew tired of its relentless pace: lots of transitions are very abrupt – the character leaps wildly from one scene to the next.

Now, I realize that, with the picture’s many convolutions, the filmmakers had no choice but to make the picture brisk – or else the picture would have dragged on well beyond its already substantial 2h10m. But I wish that they had slowed the proceedings down, even if it meant splitting the film in two parts.

At first, I was taking notes furiously, trying to take in all the crucial details in what I thought was an expository set up – something typical with most films. But it just never ended: it was one twist after the next, one chase after the other… go go go! After a while, I simply stopped bothering altogether.

I just sat back and enjoyed the ride – which, ultimately, is all this is.

The problem with such “a thrill a second” and “more-is-more” motion pictures, like Guy Ritchie’s ghastly ‘Sherlock Holmes‘, is that they’re so busy trying to keep us stimulated to the Nth degree that they lose sight of all logic and proper storytelling – making the final result utterly ridiculous.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

‘Arsène Lupin’ sometimes falls prey to such ostentaciousness, for instance:

  • There’s a subplot about Lupin senior’s death, which finds him crushed and bloodied on the countryside. In many, many flashback sequences, we see him fighting a cloaked assailant. It was heavy-handed and über predictable – if only because the way it was shot made it impossible to see the characters’ faces, which in turn told us the whole thing was a red herring.
  • There’s a scene in which Beaumagnan is blown off the top of a lighthouse and into the sea by an inexplicable explosion (it is, after all, set at the turn of the 20th century – and in a lighthouse). Somehow, however, we later discover that he escaped the lighthouse not only alive, but totally unscathed – there’s not one scratch on him. Um, yeah…
  • At the end, the Countess kills Clarisse and takes Lupin’s son. For some reason, Lupin doesn’t even give her chase – he just throws himself into the mud and howl in pain. I guess, after all the chasing that he’d done in the first two hours, that maybe he was too bushed to continue…? is that it? WTF?
  • Fast forward to 1913 and he happens to be at the site of the Countess’ return… who is accompanied by his son, now a young adult. So, um… all this time, he didn’t even try to find him? But, by pure chance, he crosses paths with him? Anyway, he stops his progeny from setting off a bomb and then disappears – he doesn’t even try to connect with his son. It’s supposed to be dramatic, but it’s so pointless.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

Thankfully, the main cast is quite terrific, especially Kristin Scott Thomas as the Countess, who pretty much steals every scene she’s in. Meanwhile, Duris does a credible job as Lupin, playing him properly cocky (and sometimes sleazy). It was a blast watching his manual dexterity at work when he lifted jewelry.

The picture was also a feast for the senses: the location filming and sets were so awe-inspiring at times that I couldn’t believe the picture made on a mere 23 million Euros – Hollywood would’ve needed thrice that. The music was also quite enjoyable, shifting between playfulness and dramatic effortlessly.

But none of this was enough to draw the cinemagoers to see the movie: ‘Arsène Lupin’ was a dismal failure, taking in less than a third of its production budget. Was the film too ambitious? Was its modern style inappropriate? Or had Arsène Lupin simply lost his appeal over the course of a century?

Hard to say. All that’s clear is that this iteration didn’t manage to steal the hearts of the general public.

Date of viewing: March 10, 2016

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