Eva Green and the Countess of Cagliostro Meet the Gentleman Thief

Arsène Lupin (2004) is the most recent French film adaptation of the 20th century’s premier gentleman thief. It’s an action-packed romp which skips breezily through a loosely connected plot involving daring robberies, conspiracy hijinks and a love triangle.

Maurice Leblanc’s creation Arsène Lupin is probably the best known example of the gentleman thief, having made much more of impact internationally than his English rival, E.W Hornung’s A.J. Raffles (who made his debut a few years before Lupin in 1898). Outside of his native France, Lupin’s exploits have been filmed in the US, UK, Germany, Hungary, Mexico and (most notably) Japan, where the manga exploits of his grandson Lupin III have spawned their own ubiquitous multimedia franchise (possibly outstripping his grandfather).

My first encounter with the Lupin family was via his descendant’s second animated feature, Miyazaki Hayao’s debut The Castle of Cagliostro [Rupan Sansei: Kariosutoro no Shiro] (1979). Hitting the ground running in the immediate aftermath of a casino heist which netted only counterfeit bills, a search for their source leads to the titular castle where Lupin rescues Princess Clarisse from forced marriage to an evil Count, breaks up a counterfeiting ring, solves the puzzle of two ancestral rings and activates a giant clockwork mechanism to unearth the treasure of Cagliostro. It’s fast-paced and funny, punctuated by the occasional leisurely pause to admire the beauty of the landscape and architecture, the element of the film which is most characteristic of Miyazaki’s body of work.

My second encounter was a very different experience, the live action feature Lupin the 3rd [Rupan Sansei] (2014). While I generally don’t have a problem with slick visuals, rapid editing or convoluted plotting, this film rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning. The pretty male and female protagonists came across as thinly characterised ciphers from a poorly conceived video game and I had such a difficult time caring about what was happening that I gave up half an hour into this two-hour-plus hyperkinetic slog.

Which brings me back at last to the original character in Arsène Lupin (2004). Director Jean-Paul Salomé’s adaptation of the original character’s adventures, co-written with Laurent Vachaud, are much closer to the source material than I had expected. We’re introduced to the character as a child (Guillaume Huet) being trained by his father (Nicky Naudé) in savate (which, with the greater emphasis on martial arts in modern action cinema, is almost a given for a French action hero). When the family is ejected from their home with the Dreux-Soubise family due to the (justified) accusation that his father is a thief (although not from them), Arsène commits his first theft in an act of revenge and gives the goods to his father. His elation at his success fades when he learns that his father was murdered shortly afterwards by his hooded compatriot. From what I can tell, while the central theft is derived from the early short story The Queen’s Necklace [Le Collier de la reine] (1906), the details about Lupin’s family are original to the film.

Skipping forwards to 1894, the 20-year-old Lupin (Romain Duris) is introduced in a sequence based on his very first appearance in The Arrest of Arsène Lupin [L’Arrestation d’Arsène Lupin] (1905), quickly establishing him as a charming and adept thief whose success owes as much to his way with women as it does to his deft hands and quick wit. A visit to his dying mother (Marie Bunel) results in a chance encounter with his cousin and childhood friend Clarisse de Dreux-Soubise (the divine Eva Green), who convinces her father (Robin Renucci) to hire him as a savate trainer so that she can take advantage of Arsène’s presence to “compromise herself” gleefully and comprehensively. (Societal mores having changed in the interim, the viewer may wish to gloss over the fact that the romantic leads are cousins, but this relationship isn’t a gratuitous addition – it comes from the original stories.)

Having set the scene and established the characters, the movie now reveals its primary source material to be the novel The Countess of Cagliostro [La Comtesse de Cagliostro] (1924). Following Clarisse’s father one evening to the meeting of a secret society, Lupin intervenes when he discovers that they are about to execute Joséphine Balsamo (Kristin Scott Thomas), escaping with her in an exciting carriage chase and falling under her spell in the aftermath. Meanwhile Beaumagnan (Pascal Greggory), expelled from the society due to their belief that he is inextricably enthralled to Joséphine, creates a vacancy for himself by murdering the wheelchair-bound Cardinal d’Etigues (Philippe Lemaire) using the time-honoured technique of setting him on fire and pushing him out the window of a tower. Much of the rest of the film becomes a web of betrayals and counter-betrayals between Lupin, Beaumagnan and Joséphine (the immortal offspring of the alchemist Count of Cagliostro and Joséphine Bonaparte) as they compete to collect a set of golden crucifixes, solve some ancient mysteries, and discover the secret treasure of the Kings of France. Along the way the plot incorporates elements of the first two Lupin novels, The Hollow Needle [L’Aiguille creuse] (1909) and 813 (1910), as well as the short story Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late [Sherlock Holmès arrive trop tard] (1906) (sans Sherlock Holmes). Lupin triumphs and reunites with Clarisse for a life of domestic bliss, criminal exploits and parenthood. The film is largely faithful to the source novel in detailing the final fate of Clarisse and their child Jean, although the film shifts Lupin’s encounter with the adult Jean from 1924 to Austro-Hungary in 1913.

Romain Duris provides the appropriate level of debonair eye candy in the central role, and Pascal Greggory is an engaging antagonist with a greater range than Duris, but the film really belongs to the women. Kristin Scott Thomas is convincing as an accomplished centenarian adventuress and schemer who effortlessly manipulates men through a combination of charm and (when necessary) alchemically based hypnotic mind control. She has the most enjoyable role in the film and completely revels in it. For me, however, I have to award the honour of best performance to Eva Green. I am admittedly biased – she made a strong impression on me in Casino Royale (2006) and I fell completely under her spell in Penny Dreadful (2014-2016) – but when watching her performance in Arsène Lupin it’s difficult to believe that this is only her second feature film. Her character is no shrinking violet at the beginning, but the amount of time she spends in captivity later in the film could have seriously hampered her ability to seem like a worthy competitor to the Countess of Cagliostro. A lesser actress could easily have foundered on these shoals, but Eva Green makes the role so completely her own that she sails away with the prize.

It appears that production designer Françoise Dupertuis was recruited to work on the next French take on the character, a modern-day reinterpretation starring Omar Sy, due to air on Netflix in 2021. This should at least guarantee a good-looking production, and while it may be lacking Eva Green, I hope it will at least equal this film in entertainment value.

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