F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1974)

Do not trust this man (spoiler notice)

Let's work our way back, shall we? Say that you're Orson Welles and you want to make your final film. But wait, he enters only later in this review, though he's front and center to the movie. So let's forget him for a moment. Say that you want to tell a story about Picasso. A truly wild and wonderful tale about forgeries, deceitful ladies and lust. And you're worried that people might not believe you, since it's just too outlandish. How would you proceed?

For Orson Welles, already portly and seemingly glued to the villainous outfit he wore in The Third Man, teaming up with French director François Reichenbach in this, his last true production, you start by telling that all films are lies. You'd make it a documentary about forging, fraud and frippery. F for Fake is the result. It has the pace of a never-stopping bullet train, the editing of a Gatling gun, all in the service of preparing you, the viewer, to accept this strange tale concerning lecherous Pablo.

The facts take place on the island of Ibiza, where in the seventies two master fakers crossed paths. Elmyr de Hory, a Hungarian art forger whose work was displayed under various famous names in many museums and art galleries, and Clifford Irving, who wrote a biography based on documents he had counterfeited. They luxuriate on parties and speak frankly, and not so frankly, with Welles, present, laughing, being quite amazed at their own fortune and waving away the time spent in prison.

Welles weaves in the lives of other characters, such as Howard Hughes – a man famous for his secretive private life. The web connecting all these people is unknowingly held together by an industry of greedy media, easily fooled 'experts' in all sorts of fields, and a public hungry for things to devour. Without these, the forgers and celebrities and frauds could not exist. Since they do, there is a demand for them, and does that not make them legitimate in their own right?

Welles seems keen on analyzing these people, and uses their words to muse on the nature of real versus fake, on art, poetry, death. All the while the main question seems to be whether fraud is really fraud. The discussion between an artist and his impostor is played out between Picasso and a grandfather who only enters the story at the very end. But by that time, is this still the documentary we started out watching?

Herein lies the trick. One that's hardly waterproof, but charming nonetheless. Welles makes a promise at the start, you see. Everything in the coming hour will be absolutely true. But movies run longer than that. F for Fake hopes you'll forget, and be lulled into wonder by its documentary styling. Then it starts. A gripping montage of Picasso as he ogles a young woman from behind the blinds of his French vacation house. He eventually invites her in, paints 22 beautiful portraits in a feverish blaze of passion, then sends her off. What happens after involves her grandfather, king of the forgers, who used the paintings as a basis to create completely original Picassos. He transcends mere imitation and becomes as the artist himself. It's a riveting narrative – and a complete fabrication. You might half suspect it, but still delight when Welles confesses, Faustian eyebrows raised, that the whole yarn was invented.

It's not just a quaint cantrip, however. It is the cheeky crescendo to an already cheeky film essay about fakery. Everything it was going to do was spelled out in the beginning. The lady was there, the cameramen, all smiling and waving as Welles beguiles a child with simple magic tricks – that I suspect were in themselves fake, magic by montage rather than sleight of hand. He told us everything coming after would be truth, but did we honestly not expect there to be another deception? We are the people that allow fakers their continued existence, if only because they're so damned entertaining. Welles' final cinematic statement is an homage to the hoax.

Roderick Leeuwenhart


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