Wealthy, young sculptor Charles Van Horn (Anthony Perkins) awakens in a Parisian hotel room, his hands stained with blood, with no memory of how he got there. Horrified he may have committed a murder, Charles appeals to his former college professor, Paul Régis (Michel Piccoli) to stay with him at his father’s country mansion and analyse his behaviour. Charles’ father Theo Van Horn (Orson Welles) is a domineering eccentric who insists his family dress in 1920s garb and has married Hélène (Marlène Jobert), a young woman whom he adopted as a child. Paul discovers Charles and Hélène are in love. Now their love letters have gone missing and an anonymous blackmailer demands $25,000 for their return. As Paul is drawn deeper into this labyrinthine mystery, he slowly realises the lovers are hapless pawns in a grandiose, biblically-inspired scheme while the film counts down towards the fatal day.
Now and again, French New Wave mystery maestro Claude Chabrol makes an English language movie and the results are almost always eccentric: e.g. The Champagne Murders (1966), Blood Relatives (1978) or Dr. M (1990). With Ten Days’ Wonder, Chabrol wove a wilfully surreal and dreamlike fable loosely based on a novel by pseudonymous pulp writer Ellery Queen. Uniquely, Ellery Queen was both the fictional detective and the alias used by his creators: cousins Daniel Nathan (alias Frederic Dannay) and Manford Lepofsky (alias Manfred Bennington Lee). A faintly smarmy, rich playboy who solves mysteries for his own amusement, Ellery Queen reached both big and small screens played by an array of actors, from Ralph Bellamy to Peter Lawford, but is absent from Chabrol’s adaptation, rewritten as Paul Regis, the man whom Theo notes has “an extraordinary analytical brain.”
Obviously out to try something wildly different, Chabrol kicks things off with a striking sequence wherein Dutch angles, weird lighting, and surreal cutaways to a writhing octopus combine into a delirious haze. Theo’s egomaniacal attempt to freeze time itself circa 1925, together with Charles’ statues of Olympian gods (modelled after Theo) and the frequent stream-of-consciousness leaps backwards and forwards in time (so seamless they render time itself irrelevant), evoke another Orson Welles cult classic: Malpertuis (1972). Yet though his script his peppered with musings on philosophy, finance and art, beneath the oddball atmosphere there isn’t an awful lot for Chabrol to sink his teeth into.
Although the strands do eventually string together, the film bewilders as it seemingly switches from one plot to another and the focus shifts from Charles to Hélène to Paul. Michel Piccoli, impeccably suave as always, remains the most engaging character but even he becomes a pawn, batted around like a ball of yarn by the balmy plot. Bereft of his usual satirical insights, Chabrol indulges in eccentricities: the crazy prophecy-spewing old witch in the attic who turns out to be Theo’s mother; his sarcastic (and frankly annoying) brother Ludovic (Guido Alberti) who seems content to linger on the sidelines mocking everybody else; and the cute little girl whose memory of the ten commandments inadvertently unlocks this decidedly wacky scheme.
Orson Welles is well cast as a millionaire with a god complex but though Theo and Paul have a well-scripted confrontation, the conclusion is as limp and unsatisfying as an episode of Murder She Wrote.
A renowned director of French thrillers, he was one of the originators of the French New Wave of the fifties and sixties, often concentrating on middle class characters going through crises that led to murder, and made around fifty of these films in his long career. Starting with Le Beau Serge in 1958, he went on to direct such respected efforts as Les Cousins, The Champagne Murders, Les Biches, This Man Must Die, Le Boucher, Blood Relatives, Poulet au Vinaigre, a version of Madame Bovary with frequent star Isabelle Huppert, L'enfer, La Ceremonie, The Girl Cut in Two with Ludivine Sagnier, and his final work for the cinema, Bellamy with Gerard Depardieu.