The Paris of Pissarro, the Paris of Lupin

[Warning to viewers of Lupin: this article contains plot spoilers]

In 2021, Netflix broadcast a new French language series called Lupin, a modern reinterpretation of the Arsène Lupin books written by Maurice Leblanc beginning in 1905. Arsène Lupin was a ‘gentleman burglar’ and a master of disguise, and though he was a thief, he was on the side of good and used his talents to assist the police and to undermine more nefarious criminals. The modern re-telling is set in present-day Paris, with flashbacks to the 1980s and 90s, where we see the childhood of the central hero, Assane Diop, the son of African immigrants. His mother is deceased and his father, Babakar, works as a chauffeur for the powerful Hubert Pellegrini and his family. Pellegrini encounters financial difficulties and decides to solve them by faking the theft of a priceless necklace. He frames Babakar so that he can claim the insurance. Babakar is convicted for the crime and dies in prison. Assane loses his beloved father and is forced to leave their home and go into foster care. While sorting through his father’s belongings Assane finds an Arsène Lupin novel, which he takes and reads, becoming captivated by the stories. Eventually he will model himself on Arsène Lupin as he plots to take revenge on Hubert Pellegrini for disgracing and killing his father. Adult Assane is played by the charismatic Omar Sy, a rising star who is very compelling in the role.

In episode 8 of the Lupin series, a painting by Camille Pissarro takes centre stage. We see Assane in the present day, in his 40s, inside the Musée d’Orsay, standing in profile against the iconic clock in the museum’s Café Campana. He sees Juliette Pellegrini, the daughter of his father’s former employer and pretends that their meeting is coincidental. She is portrayed by the actress Clotilde Hesme. Assane and Juliette are the same age and had known one another well in their youth, even enjoying a brief romance until Mr. Pellegrini forbade it. Juliette works for an arts charity and is at the museum to organise an event. In this scene, we see the Pissarro painting La Seine et le Louvre come into view several times.

The position of the painting is unusual as it seems to be in a corridor between the café and the bookshop, rather than its normal home, room 32 of the Galerie des Impressionstes. This, I imagine, was done for the purpose of shooting a scene in which two characters are meant to meet by chance as Juliette is about to leave the building. It also has the effect of making the painting the object of our complete attention because it is the only painting on the wall, and there are moments that the camera fixes directly on it. The painting is also signalled when a tour guide walks past with a group of visitors and tells them to look at the Pissarro masterpiece. At the end of this scene, Juliette tells Assane that despite their continuing attraction it is not possible to recapture their youth. Secretly, he has hatched a plan to prove to her that he still possesses youthful daring.

When Juliette arrives home, she receives a parcel and is stunned to find the same Pissarro painting that she’d seen earlier with Assane. She seems both delighted and terrified. There is a note that says simply “On peut parfois arrêter le temps. A.” [“Sometimes one can stop time. A.”] As she looks at the painting, news bulletins about the theft begin to flash on her computer and phone screens. She watches what appears to be an interview with a curator of the museum who says that the importance of the theft goes beyond the worlds of art and culture, “all of France was wounded today”. In another newsflash, the painting is estimated to be worth 17.5 million euros. Police then arrive at her door and ask whether she saw anything unusual during her visit; she nervously replies that she did not. Later, she meets Assane and tells him that she cannot keep the painting, and sometime later, another newsflash appears on her phone, saying that the painting was returned.

Each episode of Lupin follows the same format: we witness Assane’s schemes play out, but we don’t learn how they are executed until the end. Like Juliette, we believe that Assane had managed to steal a Pissarro painting from the Musée d’Orsay in broad daylight. In the denouement, we learn that Assane and his best friend Benjamin had worked together to make it appear that the Pissarro painting was stolen, when in fact it had never left the museum. Benjamin, played by the actor Antoine Gouy, owns an antique shop in Paris; he is very cultivated and multi-talented, to the point of being able to make a convincing copy of a Pissarro masterpiece. All of the newsflashes were photoshopped by Assane and sent to Juliette by Benjamin. The supposed police officers were, in fact, friends of Assane’s, in disguise.

So, we are expected to suspend our disbelief regarding Benjamin’s ability to forge a Pissarro painting, but let’s not question the show too intensely. It was a pleasure to see a Camille Pissarro painting used so prominently in a modern and very popular television series. Lupin is the first French series to make Netflix’s top 10 list and another series has already been commissioned.

The painting, La Seine et le Louvre, was made in 1903, the year that Pissarro died. It was done from an upper floor of 28 place Dauphine, the view from which allowed him to paint appealing outdoor cityscapes. Since the end of 1898, the Pissarro family had been letting apartments in Paris during winter, in order to escape rural Eragny during the bleaker months and also to provide the opportunity for Camille to paint indoors because his recurring eye affliction was made worse by working outdoors. From 28 place Dauphine, Pissarro could look down directly at the Pont Neuf and the Square du Vert Galant. And just beyond, he could see the Pont des Arts and the Musée du Louvre, which were the subject of the painting featured in Lupin. It is a wintery and misty scene, with a pink glimmer on the horizon. There is a romance and mystery to the atmosphere, as we see one couple stroll arm in arm by the river, and another pair of shadowy figures lean against a railing while watching a boat pull a barge loaded with freight. The painting exudes the quiet beauty of winter in an area of central Paris in which warmer weather would draw crowds.

Why was the painting chosen for this storyline in Lupin? Paris itself is a central character in the show and the series creators make full use of its famous landmarks and unique beauty. Many scenes are shot by the river, along its famous quays, and in particular the stretch along the Right Bank between the Louvre and the Hôtel de Ville. In other words, in the area in which Pissarro was living and painting. The iconic Paris of La Seine et le Louvre is as recognisable today as it was in 1903, and the prominence of the river and the Louvre make the subject matter of particular appropriateness to the storyline. In episode 1 of Lupin, Assane stages a dramatic robbery at the Louvre during an auction which Juliette had organised and attended. And, importantly, since their youth, Assane and Juliette habitually meet beside the Seine, near the Pont Neuf, with the Pont des Arts in the distance. This is their special place. The lone couple in Pissarro’s painting echo this. Camille Pissarro’s sweeping and timeless cityscape captures a Paris that Lupin’s creators revel in exploring.  

Camille Pissarro, La Seine et le Louvre, 1903, collection of the Musée d’Orsay

Published by londonbelletrist

Writer, scholar and artist

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