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Michel Delahaye (1929-2016): Undead Angel of the Nouvelle Vague

The Shiver of the Vampires (1971)

Critic, writer, and actor — not to mention screenwriter, director, social worker, postal agent, newspaper seller, night watchman and that’s just skimming the surface of the dizzying number of career fields he touched upon over the years — Michel Delahaye is one of those members of la Nouvelle Vague who might be ignored alongside such renowned names as Éric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol, among others, but who found a voice not only as a film critic, but as an actor. Rarely ever cast in starring roles, he pops up in supporting parts through a number of important French films in the ‘60s and ‘70s, making him yet another one of those figures who shaped a vital cinematic movement from the inside, as much as from without.

Delahaye passed away a few days ago at the age of 87 and, in a way, with his death that generation of French critic-artists — many of whom orbited around Cahiers du cinéma — has nearly gone; directors Claude Lanzmann and Godard are among the few that remain. These men (and a few women, such as the indomitable Agnès Varda, who I’m sure will outlive them all) grew up during WWII and, in different ways, they were all profoundly shaped by this experience, like millions of others living in Nazi-occupied Europe. Founded just a few years after the war in 1951 by writer André Bazin and others, Cahiers du cinéma remains the oldest functioning film magazine. It also completely reshaped the face of not only film criticism, but filmmaking; uniquely, many of its founding writers and editors went on to become influential directors.

One of these, the sublime Éric Rohmer, brought Delahaye to the magazine in 1959, where he flourished as a writer for the following decade. Incredibly prolific, he contributed hundreds of articles and either interviewed or wrote about everyone from Lang and Dreyer to Rivette, Bresson, the young Polanski, Jean-Marie Straub, and Borowczyk, among many more, covering films from every conceivable country and new releases alongside classic features. (To learn more about this particular time, you might want to check out the 2004 documentary, Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque, in which Delahaye made an appearance and is a solid introduction to the world that led to Cahiers du cinéma and shaped Delahaye’s own career). From what I understand, he was asked to leave the magazine because of his anti-Marxist stance — differing sharply with founder Bazin — but over the years he would continue his writing career with a novel, Archangel and Robinson, and further critical essays at magazines like La Lettre du cinéma.

But he will most likely be remembered by English-speaking cinema fans as an actor, thanks to roles in nearly a hundred films. He got his start with Godard, who he often worked closely with on Cahiers du cinéma — their lengthy interview with Bresson in the wake of Au hasard Balthazar is a must-read — in the director’s segment for Ro.Go.Pa.G. (1963), and he went on to work with him again in films like Band of Outsiders (1964) and Alphaville (1965). He wound up appearing in films by some of the most prominent arthouse directors of the period in things like Jancsó’s Winter Wind (1969), Jean Rouch’s Little by Little (1970), Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin (1970), Truffaut’s A Gorgeous Girl Like Me (1972), and Borowczyk’s Blanche (1972); he allegedly even participated in the French dub of Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). If there’s any director he worked with the most frequently, it is probably Rivette through films like The Nun (1966), L’amour fou (1969), and Out 1 (1971), though he also didn’t neglect genre cinema.

Where I first encountered him and how I think a lot of genre fans will continue to remember him is through two memorable performances for Jean Rollin, in The Nude Vampire (1970) and The Shiver of the Vampires (1971). In the latter, in particular, he steals the film right out from under the two leads. Newlyweds are honeymooning at the bride’s ancestral castle, which her two older cousins (Delahaye and the longer-haired Jacques Robiolles) call home. But the cousins seem to be missing and the woman they were both planning to marry (!) reports that they have died. Of course they are revealed to be undead — they were vampire hunters hoisted on their own petards by way of a sullen vampiress — resulting in two of the most flamboyant and fabulous vampires in the history of cinema, basically the outrageous vampire uncles you hoped to have but probably did not unless your life happens to mirror the universe of a Jean Rollin film.

The cousins don’t have names and their backstory is only loosely sketched out — granted this is a film which inexplicably has two female Renfields, a vampire who emerges from a grandfather clock at midnight, and death by nipple spikes — but they are two of the most fascinating figures in all of Eurohorror, all thanks to the performances from Delahaye and Robiolles (who would coincidentally appear in more films together). If I ever give into temptation and start writing fan fiction, it will be because I’m dying to uncover the further adventures of two world traveling vampire hunters turned vampires and have a closet full of some of the most insane outfits to ever grace genre cinema. Or probably just cinema in general.

After this, Delahaye stayed busy as an actor through the ‘80s — appearing in one of my favorite films, Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein (1976), plus a wealth of television episodes and made-for-TV movies — and he would go on to direct a segment of the anthology Archipel des amours (1983). He also wrote a small number of films, including Marie-Claude Treilou’s Simone Barbès ou le vertu (1980), about two female ushers in a porn theater. Though he took a break from critical writing for a time, he never really left cinema behind and closed out his career as a performer in 2012 with a voice role in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. He remains one of the lesser known but no less vital patron saints of cult and arthouse cinema, and his memory will live on as the fabulous, whimsical, and somewhat menacing vampire uncle that contemporary genre cinema so desperately needs.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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