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Verneuil Populaire: Vintage Thrillers from France’s Genre Maestro

Jul 26 — Jul 28, 2019

All descriptions were written by guest curator Julien Allen.

Born in Turkey to Armenian parents, Henri Verneuil (né Ashot Malakian) came to define a certain kind of Frenchness in popular cinema. His films were reviled by the artistic aristocracy (cinephiles, critics and especially those riding the New Wave) but were beloved of the French public. Verneuil championed the grounded working classes, the individualistic pride of his characters and their joyous disrespect for established authority. In the latter half of his career he pursued a deliberately low-brow, “American” action sensibility (celebrated in this summer season at MoMI), directing vehicles principally for Jean-Paul Belmondo and his intoxicating brand of picaresque stunt work. Yet, with the help of caramelized dialogues by the legendary Michel Audiard (father of Jacques) these films retain a delicious irreverence and a quintessentially French character which may have contributed to their being little seen in the United States, despite momentous domestic box office receipts. From his early, black and white existential provincial comedies starring Fernandel and Jean Gabin, and his later color thrillers decrying plutocratic greed and the nefarious activities of multinational corporations, Verneuil was either reflecting the life of the man on the street, or serving him his Saturday night entertainment.

Having started out as a journalist for a communist magazine in Marseille, Verneuil was accustomed to exclusion – even Gabin called him “l’Arménien” – but while the French box-office cash-registers rang long and loud, he never relinquished his desire to denounce greed, skewer injustice and to celebrate “common-man” decency through his work. He died in 2002 a solitary figure, saddened by his non-existent artistic reputation. A terrific craftsman and incurable showman whose skills were unjustly thrown out by the New Wave, Verneuil’s brand of popular cinema not only helped keep his industry afloat but also created a much loved action icon in the erstwhile arthouse star Belmondo, principally by allowing the actor to do what he had always cherished the most: entertain. Verneuil’s genre films endure as a testament to his artistry, his passion for men over money, and the enormous pride he took – despite so many telling him he wasn’t – in being French.

Organized by guest curator Julien Allen.