Just a few minutes into watching the latest Netflix sensation Lupin — its biggest-ever French show — and I was giving some serious Gallic shrugs.
It’s hugely popular: it has been no. 1 in the US and was the first French series to break into their top 10. Elsewhere, Lupin is vying for Bridgerton for the number one streaming spot.
Inspired by Maurice Leblanc’s stories about the gentleman thief, Arsène Lupin, the show’s success has prompted fresh print runs of the books, first published in 1905. (Some had sold out on Amazon when I checked last week but have now been restocked.)
But watching the show is a strangely dislocating and downright weird experience.
Omar Sy, the César-winning French actor, plays a thief called Assane who’s obsessed with Lupin. He’s in Paris planning a heist, musing on the Mona Lisa, strolling across the Seine. So why is he jabbering dix-neuf to the dozen to his co-conspirators, his son, his estranged wife in rushed, robotic English?
'I’M A JANITOR AT THE LOOV' he booms, in a generic American accent. It’s like being shouted at by the voiceover man who does the cinema trailers (remember them?). 'They thought it was just an ordinary day… but it turned out to be DAY FROM HELL!'
It took me a few minutes to realise that the show is dubbed. None of the gushing reviews (97 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes) mention this fact, which is extraordinary when you think how unusual this is — for the UK market, at least. The only dubbed show I could think of was Monkey, the 1970s Japanese series.
We aren’t used to dubbing in this country. That’s partly because of the hegemony of English, but also, because dubbing is considered naff — synonymous with martial arts movies and Spaghetti Westerns. But it’s also, I think, because we quite like subtitles.
A subtitled film demands commitment: you can’t be fiddling with your phone for the duration. (This is the main reason why we still haven’t watched Parasite more than a month into Lockdown 3.0 — the fear of being off Instagram for a full two hours.)
But before homeschooling had us working all hours, subtitles weren’t a barrier to enjoying everything Scandi-noir. The Bridge, The Killing — both had us going round saying “tak” instead of “thank you” for weeks afterwards.
Netflix, however, doesn’t agree. Research for the streaming service shows that viewers prefer the dubbed versions of its hit shows. The Netflix dubbing operation is massive, with a network of actors and facilities to translate content into more than 30 languages.
Yet even with all this investment, the dubbing job on Lupin is hopeless. French to English isn’t an easy one to do; the French use more words than us, so the characters sound like a coked-up malfunctioning Alexa.
As the Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips observed about Lupin, making things 'easier' on American audiences 'usually means making things less authentic. And dumber'.
When you switch the Netflix settings to French with English subtitles, Lupin is a different show. It’s stylish and slick, playful and fun and — crucially — not too demanding. Omar Sy’s character exploits what he calls the “invisibility” of black people to pull off some of his tricks, but he’d never question or castigate the racial injustice that makes this possible. Perhaps this is the secret of Lupin’s success — that it’s all rather slight and feel-good.
Post Scandi-noir and Killing Eve, the bar for the heist film has become absurdly high. Yet even with Killing Eve co-writer George Kay at the helm, Lupin doesn’t come close. But what does this matter when, thanks to the subtitles, you can scroll through Instagram at the same time?
Five episodes of Lupin are available now; the rest are being held back until the summer. Though now that my ‘A’ Level French has been reactivated, it’s a relief to know that I’ll be able to watch it in the original whilst looking at my phone after all.