Why Ten Days’ Wonder? I certainly wouldn’t call it one of Chabrol’s masterpieces. That’s a description I’d reserve for Les Bonnes Femmes, Le Boucher, Ã Double Tour, La Rupture, The Cry of the Owl, Story of Women, La Cérémonie, or any one of a half dozen others.
No, the reason I chose Ten Days’ Wonder for the Claude Chabrol Blogathon is because it’s fun. Fun to watch. Fun to write about.
To begin with, it co-stars Anthony Perkins and Orson Welles. How cool is that? Perkins and Welles had already co-appeared in three films, including Is Paris Burning? (René Clément), Catch 22 (Mike Nichols), and – most memorably of all – in Welles’ The Trial (which is a masterpiece). They played well off each other. There was a palpable emotional tension between them, not unlike the tension between Falstaff and Prince Hal in Welles’ Chimes at Midnight.
Ten Days’ Wonder is a film that deliberately reminds the viewer of the past screen performances of its stars: Welles, with his putty nose, as a power-obsessed patriarch like the characters he played in Citizen Kane, Mr. Arkadin, and The Immortal Story; Perkins as a tortured son like the characters he played in Desire Under the Elms, Fear Strikes Out, Psycho, and The Trial. Chabrol wants his audience to see Welles as the archetypal Father, Perkins as the archetypal Son.
Which brings me to another reason why I love this crazy film. I have always been fascinated by the role of myth and archetype in filmmaking. In Ten Days’ Wonder, Chabrol and his co-scenarist Eugene Archer (an American auteurist who had been a mentor to Andrew Sarris and Peter Bogdanovich) took a typical Ellery Queen detective novel and intentionally overlaid its story with as much mythic and archetypal resonance as possible.
There are four principal characters. Welles is Theo Van Horn, an Arkadin-like multi-millionaire who has created a world of his own, a country estate where everyone who lives or visits there must dress as though they were living in 1925. Perkins is Charles Van Horn, Theo’s adopted son. Marlene Jobert is Helene, Charles’s beautiful young stepmother, and the wonderful Michel Picolli plays Paul, the Ellery Queen detective figure, a former teacher of Charles, whom Charles asks to help investigate whether Charles has committed certain criminal acts while blacked out. Just as Oedipus investigates himself – but more on this anon.
Both the Old and New Testaments are evoked. The Old Testament’s archetypal son, Adam, is recalled in a shot where the adulterous Charles and Helene lie as naked as Adam and Eve in their own private Eden.
The relationship of Theo, Helene, and Charles also deliberately recalls the Greek myth of King Theseus, who corresponds to Theo, his young wife Phaedra, who corresponds to Helene, and Theseus’s son by another woman, Hippolytus, who corresponds to Charles. Suspecting Phaedra and Hippolytus of adultery, King Theseus called on the god Poseidon to destroy Hippolytus. (Perkins had already played a similar role in a modern version of Phaedra directed 9 years earlier by Jules Dassin.) The fact that Charles is having an affair with his mother – albeit his stepmother – additionally invokes the myth of Oedipus.
The icing on this rich “slice of cake” (as Hitchcock would call it) is Chabrol’s visual style. The faux-1925 setting allows the costume designers and set decorators to have a field day, with the emphasis on Chabrol’s favorite color, ice blue. The opening of the film, in which Charles awakes from a drug-induced blackout, is a tour-de-force of skewed camera angles and superimposed writhing sea creatures, recalling Kane‘s rubber octopus and setting us up for the later Poseidon references. A spectacular crane shot at a railway station prompted a reviewer for the Village Voice to suggest that parts of the film had been directed by Welles himself. When I was lucky enough to meet Chabrol – a great guy – I asked him about this, and he responded, “Who do they think I am, Norman Foster?” *