F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1973)

After the Second World War ended, a man hailing from Ibiza, Spain named Elmyr de Hory arrived in Paris and attempted to make a living as an artist. Through his endeavors, he discovered he had an uncanny ability to copy styles of famous painters. In 1946, he sold a pen-and-ink drawing to a British woman who believed it to be an original work by Picasso. Having little money to his name, he went against his scruples and sold his forgery as the genuine article. Nearly three decades later, the French filmmaker François Reichenbach hired Orson Welles to edit and narrate a documentary about de Hory. However, as the project blossomed, more and more narratives became intertwined. When all was said and done, the result would be the final film of Orson Welles’s released in his lifetime: F for Fake.

In an esoteric way, F for Fake could be considered Orson Welles’s answer to Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour.  Both are projects initially conceived as documentaries before evolving into something else entirely. However, Resnais wove a fictional narrative when he realized creating a documentary would cause him to retread ground he already covered in 1955 with Night and Fog. Meanwhile, F for Fake started off as a standard documentary before the crew led by director François Reichenbach learned that Clifford Irving, their primary source, was himself exposed as a fraud. He had published a biography of billionaire Howard Hughes based entirely on fabricated evidence and other falsehoods. Before it was even completed, the film seemed to make the case that even the best writers couldn’t conceive twists as complex or as sudden as the ones real life has to offer. With Irving no longer credible, the production company turned the footage over to Welles, who proceeded to add his own material to craft F for Fake. Acting as a host, he promises the audience that, in spite of talking about frauds, forgers, and other assorted liars, he will tell the truth based on solid fact for the next hour.

To make his point about the blurred lines between truth and lies, Welles’s girlfriend and co-writer of the film, Oja Kodar, walks along a crowded street in Europe, being ogled by various men all the while. Said men are none the wiser, meaning their reactions are genuine. However, these genuine reactions are prompted through trickery. Had they known they were being recorded the entire time, it stands to reason many of them wouldn’t have acted upon their impulses. In this case, a concealment of the truth causes other truths to rise to the surface. Theoretically, exposing the truth right away would result in another swath of lies.

As it turns out, de Hory and Irving’s stories, though seemingly unrelated, prompt an important question: what is the point of art criticism when they could be hoodwinked so easily? Despite proudly touting themselves as experts, they fared no better than the commoners many of them look down upon, gleefully accepting lies as the truth. Although forgers are shunned by these communities, one cannot deny that there is quite a lot of skill involved. It’s not as though some random person who has never picked up a paintbrush in their life could scrawl a vaguely cubist piece and expect potential buyers believe it’s a Picasso. Similarly, if someone who hadn’t written a piece of fiction since grade school attempted to create a fake biography about a random celebrity they weren’t familiar with, nobody would believe them.  Naturally, what allowed these two men to enjoy their short-lived successes is that they themselves were experts in their own fields. Elmyr de Hory had a fairly lucrative business for himself selling forgeries of Picasso, Matisse, and other artists. At the same time, one can’t help but wonder if Clifford Irving made a calculated decision when he chose his subject. Howard Hughes was a notorious recluse with several well-known eccentricities – Irving could have written the most extravagant piece of fiction possible and the public would accept it without question.

What separates these two men from your garden-variety trickster is that they were masters of lying convincingly – not unlike a skilled film director. Indeed, part of what allows this critique of the critics to hit home is that Welles’s work is highly self-deprecating. The images and sounds you see before you when watching a film are real, yet they form a work of fiction. If the director succeeds well enough, the actors and actresses may soon find people on the street calling them by their characters’ names. Even if it’s almost never the director’s intent, the fictional narratives and the characters therein end up bleeding into reality.

Welles is fully aware of this phenomenon and the other implications that come with the territory, and freely refers to himself as a charlatan throughout the narrative – albeit one who, as he put it, “started at the top and worked [his] way to the bottom”. Even before he directed his debut feature, Citizen Kane, he had inadvertently tricked listeners into believing aliens invaded when he broadcasted himself reading H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. It seems like it was fate that Welles’s film would involve Irving because Howard Hughes plays an important role in both of their stories. As Welles originally drafted Citizen Kane, he originally wanted to use Howard Hughes as the primary inspiration for the title character Charles Foster Kane. However, he eventually concluded that, in an ironic inversion of Irving’s own situation three decades later, he couldn’t make a believable character out of such a person. That’s when he turned his attention William Randolph Hearst instead, and thus created one of the most lauded films of all time.

Although there are plenty of great things to say about F for Fake, my favorite aspect of it is just how much it plays with the medium itself. In the final act, Welles fulfills the promise he made in the introduction by presenting Kodar’s story. She vacationed in the same village as Picasso. The artist then painted twenty-two pieces using her as a model. She then asked to keep the paintings, but serendipitously, twenty-two new pieces appear in an acclaimed exhibit. An enraged Picasso storms into the exhibit, but learns all of the pieces are forgeries. The forger was Kodar’s grandfather, who defended his actions as Picasso demanded the original paintings back.

After Welles and Kodar reenact the exchange between Picasso and the latter’s grandfather, the director reveals the story was a complete fabrication. You might ask yourself how he could lie so brazenly when he promised to tell the truth, but the answer is simple enough. Welles promised to tell the truth for one hour and F for Fake has a runtime of eighty-eight minutes. He used the last seventeen minutes to present a piece of fiction to the audience before revealing the illusion. Much like Citizen Kane before it, F for Fake makes the case that information can be easily distorted even by sources who claim to be unbiased or objective. It demonstrates that, while there can be truth in what the media says, you should always take their pieces with a  grain of salt lest you find yourself in the same position as the art critics who mistook de Hory’s forgeries for real Picassos.

In hindsight, watching F for Fake is bittersweet for two reasons. Elmyr de Hory committed suicide in 1976 and Orson Welles would never again complete another film, though he continued to find work until he passed away in 1985. Even so, I feel as grim as F for Fake has become, it is still ultimately a triumphant swansong that stands above many films due to its highly avant-garde structure. This is a film made by intellectuals for intellectuals. It always takes its audience seriously, dropping advanced concepts while expecting them to keep up. By straddling the line between being a documentary and a mockumentary, F for Fake tells a story too strange for fiction or reality. Even if you’ve watched a fair share of documentaries, chances are you’ve never seen one successfully twist the medium in ways this feature does.

More than anything, what I find the most admirable aspect about F for Fake is that it’s fun. With other acclaimed arthouse directors, you have to wonder if they really are geniuses or if they received their lofty statuses because they tell the critics exactly what they want to hear. This isn’t the case with F for Fake. Despite delving into the relationship between truth and lies, the narrative has a real sense of humor that is highly appealing to intellectuals and cinephiles alike. Although many fans believe films should be completely serious all the time, the jovial nature of F for Fake actively enhances the erudite themes rather than suffocating them. It’s as though Mr. Welles took the dark themes present in his body of work and managed to find the common thread of optimism hiding beneath the surface the entire time.

“Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.”

Final Score: 8/10

8 thoughts on “F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1973)

  1. Even though Welles calls himself a charlatan, it seems like his work is sincere from what I’ve seen. At the same time, some creators who present themselves as completely honest and straightforward end up making intellectually or emotionally dishonest works. I haven’t seen F For Fake, but I like stuff like this, so I’ll check it out.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, Welles had a level of sincerity you just don’t see with a lot of auteurs nowadays. A lot of them are more interested in conforming to trends and placating critics than taking chances. A lot of critical darlings I’ve seen in the last few years do indeed tout themselves as straightforward and honest, but generally succeed at being neither, either having rambling, go-nowhere plots or underestimating their audiences. F for Fake is the perfect antidote for today’s creatively stagnant filmmaking ethos, so go for it. In terms of intellectualism, he was the real deal.

      Liked by 1 person

    • He certainly has a lot of exemplary films to his name, doesn’t he? The only film of his that regularly gets mentioned at all is Citizen Kane, and while it is indeed a masterpiece, you’re just scratching the surface of what he accomplished with that. F for Fake is an underrated gem that deserves more recognition.

      Liked by 1 person

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