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Playing God

Ten Days Wonder at the Harvard Square

By Phil Patton

ORSON WELLES ALWAYS DID have a voice and presence rather like the Sunday school image of Almighty God, but the role Claude Chabrol has given him in Ten Days Wonder is probably as close as he'll get to playing the real thing. Welles, as a millionaire striving for omnipotence must not only defend the world he has built up around himself from a psychotic son, but support a droopy, chche-ridden script derived in about equal parts from Ellery Queen and Sigmund Freud Queen's novel provides the story, and the message is Chabrol's interpretation of the gospel according to St. Sigmund.

From the moment that the Welles character. Theo Van Horn, appears, with eyes flashing powerfully above the salt-and-pepper beard, and puts his arm around his son Charles (Anthony Perkins) in a mastering gesture, the comparison with Citizen Kane becomes unavoidable. Welles is just as much of a force here, but Theo's story is hardly that of a good man brought low, it is not a tragedy like Kane's. Through ten days of intense action. Theo remains unchanging. He merely reveals more and more of himself becoming more of a god and less of a man.

Charles, a sometime sculptor, goes home because he psychologically cannot escape from his father and brings with him his friend Paul (Michel Piccolt) a philosophy professor. Paul soon learns that Theo has tried to freeze all life on his estate as it was in the fall of 1925. Theo's young wife Helene (Marlene Jobert), whom he picked to become his bridge while she was still a child dresses in twenties style and is chauffeured about in an elderly limousine. Charles too is impressed into this pattern of dress and life, and into total submission to the father. Theo wants to make the finest moment of his life last forever--the same pleasure with which the devil tempted Faust from God.

BUT IN CHARLES'S EYES, his father is God, Jehovah, the God of stern justice, the most extreme form of the classic Freudian father. Tall, lanky, looking like a ragged page boy. Charles can only smile quiveringly in his father's presence. Theo blocks Charles from finding his own identity: Theo has told him, whether truthfully or not, that he is a foundling, and his real parents unknown, killed by lightning--Jehovah's staff.

The father's control extends into Charles's mind. He has periods in which he is overcome by violent forces that black out his memory. He wakes up with bloodied hands, and, in a sequence recalling Hitchcock's Vertigo, finds himself going down a set of stairs that tilt and swing wildly under him.

Chabrol punctuates Charles's self-questioning with the good old Freudian image of the mirror: Charles in front of a bathroom mirror, wondering where the blood on his hands came from; Charles seeing himself twisted in a shiny bar counter; Charles at home seeing his reflection and Helene's in a pond. And in this last image is represented a certain success for Charles in his quest: he has fallen in love with Helene, his father's wife, whom he calls mother.

Letters from Charles to Helene have been stolen, and Charles must take from his father's safe to pay the blackmailer. Theo of course discovers the loss, and the absence of a diamond necklace which Helene has Paul pawn to meet a second demand. Then, Helene is murdered. Charles rushes downstairs to his studio, topples a great god-like statue wielding lightning bolts-his father as Jehovah--and impales himself on the spiked fence below the window.

"SO IT GOES," as Kurt Vonnegut says, but for a director of Chabrol's stature, it never should go like that. As cheap Freudianism expands into cheap theology, even a skillful development of suspense is neglected. The "second level" with which Chabrol's idol Hitchcock expands the thriller here comes forward and overwhelms the story. What could have been turned into suspense or shock--the identity of Helene's murderer--is abbreviated and intellectualized into a sort of "wrap-up" scene between Paul and Theo. It is the philosophy professor, significantly, who has to figure out that all is not as it appears, and then tell the viewer in his confrontation with Theo. And even when he does, there are none of those little signs to look back on and realize how you could have seen it coming all along.

In this final scene, Theo, the man who plays God, gets his comeuppance at Chabrol's hands--but so does God Himself. In the past, Chabrol's films have shown retribution coming to those in whom the id has won out in violence or immorality. At best that retribution has been tragic. But in Ten Days' Wonder, although Charles meets his death it is Theo--who drove Charles's passions to "unnatural" outlets-who is literally guilty: his is Helene's murderer. He is punished for his hubris, for daring to manipulate men as if he were God. But beyond that it is God Himself, the greatest manipulator, who is the target hidden in the long shadow of a tough, psychological Catholicism which Chabrol has been fleshing since the beginning of his film-making career. That preoccupation, together with flimsy dialogue and loose ends, is too heavy a burden for even Orson Welles to bring home.

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