“Critic and actor!” trumpeted the press-kit for François Truffaut’s 1972 comedy Une belle fille comme moi (A Gorgeous Girl Like Me). Few have successfully managed to combine the two professions. Michel Delahaye was one of them. He was a man of many trades: journalist, social worker, novelist, screenwriter, docker, warehouseman, postal worker, newspaper vendor. But Delahaye was most well-known as a film critic for Cahiers du cinéma between 1960 and 1970, and then as an actor, appearing in nearly a hundred films between the early 1970s and the 2010s. Sadly, this extraordinary life came to an end with Delahaye’s death, at the age of 87, on October 22.
Born in 1929, Delahaye was raised in poverty in the western French city of Nantes. His devout father, a pilot during World War I, renounced his inheritance and insisted on a Spartan upbringing for his children. Such asceticism may not have had the desired effect on the young Michel, who turned to delinquency during his adolescence, and even served a prison sentence for his rebelliousness, which thwarted his aspirations to become a teacher. Instead, he worked odd-jobs and led an itinerant lifestyle before permanently moving to Paris in 1956. In the late 1950s, he found freelance work writing for the crime magazines Radar and Détective, while also assiduously attending screenings at Henri Langlois’ cinémathèque on the Rue d’Ulm.
It was here that he was spotted by Éric Rohmer, who recruited Delahaye to write for Cahiers in 1959. His first published article for the film journal, on Paul Paviot’s Pantalaskas, appeared in the March 1960 issue, while a longer text on Georges Franju’s Les Yeux sans visages (Eyes Without a Face), followed in April 1960, confirming his position in the journal. Over the course of the next decade, Delahaye wrote prolifically for Cahiers. Whether penning reviews, reporting from international festivals or interviewing directors, he was a central presence in the journal, even as the idiosyncrasies of his critical perspective increasingly served to distance himself from the other members of the editorial team.
Delahaye steered clear of issuing grand theoretical statements on the cinema, but his vision of the art form is clear from the films he writes about. His articles from the 1960s offer lucid defences of Jacques Demy, Satyajit Ray, King Vidor and Howard Hawks, among others. He played an integral role in the critical resuscitation of John Ford in the 1960s, writing on the filmmaker’s relationship with his Irish Catholic ancestry, and doggedly defended Carl Th. Dreyer’s Gertrud, a film which outside Cahiers elicited a derisive response from French critics upon its 1964 release. For Delahaye, the value of the cinema comes from its openness to the world, in all its intricacy and splendour. This sentiment is perhaps best captured in his report on the 1964 Berlin film festival, when the critic wrote that the three “cinematic subjects” par excellence are “the spirit of the time, the spirit of woman, and the spirit of adventure.”1
Delahaye’s attraction to the cinéma-vérité approach adopted by Jean Rouch flowed from this outlook. Reviewing Moi, un noir in 1961, Delahaye declared, “A cinema is born, where life and film reflect themselves and each other. Rouch neither has the ambition to reflect, nor to recreate the real; rather, he simply knows how to accept it in its complexity, and to accept the reflection of the film on itself and the reintegration of this composite reflection in the film.”2 His defence of Rouch, however, came at the expense of Marker. The near-simultaneous release of Chronique d’un été and Le Joli Mai in 1963 provoked comparisons between the two filmmakers in many quarters, and the critic resolutely came out on the side of the former. Railing against Marker’s “incapacity to come into contact with anyone who is not an intellectual,” Delahaye aligned him with the sentiment of Stendhal’s bon mot, “I love the people, I hate its oppressors, but it would be perpetual torture for me to live with the people.”3 Pasolini’s Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964), was similarly criticised for its intellectualism, with Delahaye evincing a lukewarm response to the “closed universe populated by interconnected phantoms” depicted by the film.4
Some of Delahaye’s most lucid criticism came in his diptych of articles on Godard: “Jean-Luc Godard et l’enfance de l’art” in June 1966 and “Jean-Luc Godard ou l’urgence de l’art” in February 1967. Godard was then in one of the most prolific spells of his career, releasing Masculin-féminin (Masculine-Feminine, 1966), Made in USA (1966) and Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, 1967) within months of each other. Delahaye praised this run of films as “the most hazardous, the most radical and the most beautiful cinema today,” and described Godard’s filmmaking as a “total quest” where art and life merge into a single adventure.5 Three decades later, Godard returned the compliment by dedicating Episode 4A of Histoire(s) du cinéma to Delahaye, but by this time the critic had renounced these texts, and he steadfastly refused to authorise their republication.
Delahaye’s own intellectual influences were diverse and eclectic. He was receptive to the wave of structuralist theory that dominated French culture in the 1960s, interviewing both Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss for Cahiers, and attending the latter’s anthropology seminar throughout the decade. At Cahiers he earned the nickname “Le Grand Syntagme Vert” – but this was as much for the green raincoat he wore as his interest in semiology. Indeed, thinkers such as Paulhan, Bernanos, Péguy and Ramuz featured in his critical writings just as often as the high-priests of structuralism. This esoteric vein would end up bringing Delahaye’s “anarcho-evangelism” into conflict with his Cahiers colleagues, who, by the end of the 1960s, had embarked on a trajectory towards an unequivocally Marxist framework under the editorship of Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni. Articles on Marcel Pagnol and Claude Autant-Lara were distinctly out of place in this newly-defined project, and Delahaye was not averse to provoking his colleagues, claiming at one editorial meeting, “If Jean Narboni is the Engels of Cahiers, I am its Barrès.”6
The discord was gleefully exacerbated by Cahiers’ rivals. Cinéthique, for instance, did not hesitate to malign Delahaye as a “monument of modernist eclecticism, theoretical inconsistency and hippy senility.”7 In October 1970, he was ousted from the journal, with a notice in that month’s issue explaining that “the suppression of Michel Delahaye’s name from the list of writers in this issue corresponds to the will he has manifested to no longer collaborate with Cahiers, with which he is in complete ideological and theoretical disagreement.”8
The blow was a bitter one for Delahaye, who found himself cut off from his former friends and deprived of his part-time salary as editorial secretary. Right up until his death he remained resentful of his treatment by what he called “les Cahiers du cinéma marxistes-léninistes”. Salvation came in the form of acting. Delahaye’s exceptional physique doubtless attracted him to directors – standing 6 foot 3 inches tall, with size 47 shoes, arched shoulders and a piercing gaze, he was easily capable of cutting a terrifying figure. Delahaye scored parts in films as diverse as Jacques Rivette’s 13½-hour opus Out 1 (1970) and Jean Rollin’s exploitation flick La Vampire nue (The Naked Vampire, 1971), Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s Mallarmé recital Toute révolution est un coup de dès (Every Revolution is a Throw of the Dice, 1979) and Jean Yanne’s baudy satire of the cultural revolution Les Chinois à Paris (The Chinese in Paris, 1973). Most notably, he formed close ties with the “Diagonale” group of filmmakers, and had prominent roles in a number of films by Marie-Claude Treilhou and fellow Cahiers alumni Paul Vecchiali and Jean-Claude Biette. In Vecchiali’s En haut des marches (1983), critic and actor merge, as Delahaye delivers a stirring diatribe that draws substantially from his 1970 article on Autant-Lara’s Les Patates.9
Other activities also occupied Delahaye during this time: in 1974 he published his first, and only, novel L’Archange et Robinson font du bateau, a memoire of his troubled teenage years.10 When asked if the title was an homage to Céline et Julie vont en bateau, filmed the same year, Delahaye’s response was categorical: the title of Rivette’s film was in fact an homage to his book. In later years he also worked on screenplays for Le Passe-montagne by Jean-François Stévenin (Mountain Pass, 1978) and Simone Barbès ou la vertu by Treilhou (Simone Barbes or Virtue, 1980), but Delahaye only stepped behind the camera to direct once, for the short film Sara, an episode of the Diagonale-produced omnibus Archipel des amours (Archipelago of Love, 1983).
An atheist from a young age, Delahaye converted to Catholicism in the 1980s, and spent five years working for the French social services, a period he had fond memories of. Aggrieved by his experience at Cahiers, he ceased writing film criticism for nearly thirty years, but returned to the practice in 1999 at the urging of Axelle Ropert and Serge Bozon, the editors of La Lettre du cinéma, where he wrote on Fritz Lang, Larry Clark’s Ken Park and Bozon’s own Mods. Together with Pascale Bodet, Ropert and Bozon have contributed the most to resuscitating Delahaye’s status as a film critic in the 21st century. Bodet filmed a documentary on him in 2007 (Le carré de la fortune, co-directed with Emmanuel Levaufre) and she and Bozon edited a collection of Delahaye’s critical writings for Capricci in 2010, À la fortune du beau, a book which has ensured his work remains accessible to contemporary readers.11 Upon Delahaye’s death, Ropert described him as a “powerful speaker with humble roots from another age, hardened by a life of brutal detours, passing from fury to kindness without warning, he was a character straight out of Victor Hugo.”12
One of his most recent texts looked at Operai, contadini by Straub/Huillet (Workers, Peasants, 2001), and Delahaye used the opportunity to reminisce about his impressions of their first films. Indeed, Delahaye was one of the most strident advocates of Straub/Huillet’s early work, championing Machorka-Muff (1962) and Nicht versöhnt (Not Reconciled, 1965) against the critical condemnation they had received in both Germany and France. New battles around the politics of film form simmered at the dawn of the millennium, as Straub/Huillet shocked some of their diehard supporters with their unprecedented use of a zoom in Workers, Peasants. Delahaye, however, defended the zoom as practical in the circumstances and potent in its effect. Departing here from one of the central dogmas of Cahiers, he argued that “Techniques are indeed neutral and, because we are responsible for them, they are worth what we are worth. Only, in the era of the confusion of tongues, it has been tempting to ascribe technique with the responsibility for our own lacks.”13
I first met Michel close to the end of his long, rich life. As I conducted research into Cahiers du cinéma, several of his former colleagues urged me to speak to him, despite the differences in their views of the era. I ended up spending many conversation-filled hours in his 16th arrondissement apartment, the discussions a testament to his bountiful generosity. His rheumatism, at this point, severely restricted his mobility, and his short-term memory had deteriorated, but his recollections of the past were vivid, and his views on the cinema remained insightful and intransigent in equal measure. Enigmatic yet penetrating, sensitive yet truculent, with a paranoid streak but a beneficent heart – in the novel of French cinephilia, Delahaye is the most inimitable of characters. His image will be etched into the memories of film-viewers around the world, and his writings will long remain a monument to his unique critical vision.
- Michel Delahaye, “Berlin 64”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 158 (August-September 1964), pp. 36-40, here p. 36. ↩
- Michel Delahaye, “La règle de Rouch”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 120 (June 1961), pp. 1-11, here p. 1. Repr. in Michel Delahaye, À la fortune du beau, ed. Pascale Bodet and Serge Bozon (Paris: Capricci, 2010), pp. 47-61). ↩
- Michel Delahaye, “La chasse à l’I”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 146 (August 1963), pp. 5-17, here pp. 6, 10. Repr. in À la fortune du beau, op. cit., pp. 69-91. ↩
- “Tout Droit (Il vangelo secondo Matteo)”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 166-167 (May-June 1965), pp. 125-126, here p. 125. Repr. in À la fortune du beau, op. cit., pp. 115-120. ↩
- Michel Delahaye, “Jean-Luc Godard et l’enfance de l’art”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 179 (June 1966), pp. 65-70, here p. 65. ↩
- See Antoine de Baecque, Cahiers du cinéma: Histoire dune revue vol. II: 1959-1981 (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1990), p. 226. Maurice Barrès was a writer and right-wing nationalist in the late 19th century and early 20th century, who was close to the French monarchist movement of Charles Maurras. ↩
- “Du bon usage de la valeur d’échange (les Cahiers du cinéma et le marxisme-léninisme)”, Cinéthique no. 6 (January-February 1970), pp. 1-12, here p. 4. ↩
- Cahiers du cinéma no. 224 (October 1970), p. 57. ↩
- See Michel Delahaye, “Une tragédie française (Les Patates)”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 218 (March 1970), pp. 57-59. Repr. in À la fortune du beau, op. cit., pp. 213-219. ↩
- Michel Delahaye, L’Archange et Robinson font du bateau (Paris: Champ libre, 1974). He also wrote a prequel to this work, charting his earlier childhood, but this never found publication. ↩
- Michel Delahaye, À la fortune du beau, ed. Pascale Bodet and Serge Bozon (Paris: Capricci, 2010). ↩
- Axelle Ropert, “Un personnage hugolien”, Le Monde, October 25, 2016. ↩
- Michel Delahaye, “Ouvriers, paysans: Récits du cœur du monde, in Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Ouvriers, paysans (Paris: Ombres, 2001). Repr. in À la fortune du beau, op. cit., pp. 312-322, here p. 318. ↩