F FOR FAKE
Deceit. Sleight of hand. Fraud. To a certain point, people enjoy being fooled if they know ahead of time that there are tricks up one's sleeves. F For Fake is not so much a documentary about fraud but a meditation on deception in a myriad of forms. It's a fascinating portrait of professional shysters, not least of which is director Orson Welles.
F for Fake is ostensibly about infamous art forger Elmyr de Hory and his biographer Clifford Irving with Welles serving as guide, narrator and commentator on a story simply too outlandish to be plausible. Welles tells us that for at least the first hour everything he tells us will be absolutely true.
Truth here however is wilder than fiction in this cascading story of liars and the liars who lie about liars. Elmyr's forgeries were well-known to where he became a celebrity for his fakes, able to not just imitate the styles of painters like Picasso and Modigliani but fool the experts and even the painters themselves. Irving's Elmyr biography, Fake!, chronicles his story, but it looks like Irving picked up a few tricks of his from the legendary bon vivant forger.
Irving himself later claimed to be collaborating with famously reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes on his autobiography. He produced letters purportedly from Hughes, which were authenticated by experts. It wasn't until Howard Hughes himself, via a telephone press conference denied meeting or even knowing Irving, let alone working with him, that the jig was up.
Mixing in the footage of these deceptions upon deceptions is Welles' views on the nature and truth of 'art' and of receiving credit. He meditates on Chartres Cathedral, noting its architect is unknown. He mentions his own career starting in Ireland where he hoodwinked a theater company to letting him act by claiming to be 'a big American stage star' and his own act of fraud with his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast.
"That's how it got started. Began at the top, and have been working my way down ever since," he says.
F for Fake ends with the story of Oja Kodar, a beauty who so bewitched Pablo Picasso that he did what he'd never done with any other of his muses: surrender the twenty-one paintings he'd done of her to Kodar. When Picasso learns that a small art museum is hosting an exhibition of 'new Picassos' he's enraged and confronts Kodar, only to learn that the paintings are her grandfather's forgeries. In confronting her grandfather, he discovers an unrepentant old man who delights in his deception.
That delight extends to Welles himself, who informs us that the hour of truth has passed and he's created the entire Picasso/Kodar story.
This is a film where you must simultaneously accept and reject the truth of what is presented because the show show is About Fakes (which is the title Welles presents us in the credits). Everything is a fake: Elmyr's paintings, Irving's Hughes biography, the Picasso/Kodar story. What is to say that Welles' own stories of Irish sojourns or the claim that Citizen Kane was originally going to be about Howard Hughes before switching to William Randolph Hearst are true?
Most viewers take narrators, particularly in documentaries, as oracles of truth. Welles shows that this may not be truth but a selective truth.
I confess part of my enjoyment of F for Fake comes from my knowledge that Kodar was Welles' mistress and muse, so I knew the Kodar/Picasso story was a sham. However, knowing as such I could roll with the fantastical and outrageous story, especially given how well Welles and co-editors Marie-Sophie Dubus and Dominique Engerer put the film together. Wildly spinning from one oddity to another and yet more F for Fake goes all-around, but in a most delightful way.
As a side note, F for Fake does reveal truths about Welles: his erotic fixation on Kodar, which the film lavishes nude shots of her (as he did to a greater extent on The Other Side of the Wind), and his observation about his career's downward trajectory post-Citizen Kane. Even among professional charlatans the truth can emerge.
While the Clifford Irving/Howard Hughes story has been made into a film (The Hoax), curiously no film has been made of the fascinating and enigmatic Elmyr, who outdid Welles in the Art of Deception. Here we see him give glimpses of his story, along with some rather curious observations. On his living on the Spanish island of Ibiza he comments, "It's not a place for snobbish society. It's not London. It's not Paris. It's not Omaha".
How our fair Midwestern city became a hotbed for the elites is left unexplained.
Seeing the forger's biographer explain Elmyr's life while a monkey pecks at his hair lends a touch of the bizarre to an already bizarre story. The whole Elmyr/Irving stories seem to delight Welles to where his wild yarn of the temptation of Picasso by Kodar seems his own contribution to delightful yarns.
If anything, F for Fake has as an unmentioned subject the contempt for 'experts'. Experts were fooled by Elmyr's work. Experts were fooled by Irving's work. Experts essentially condemned Welles to live in Citizen Kane's shadow. "God's own gift to the faker", Welles remarks on experts. The lesson of "don't be spooked by the experts" that Elmyr worked under apparently inspired Irving when he tried it with the Hughes 'autobiography'. Perhaps even the reclusive Hughes himself, Welles speculates, pulled off his own deception by forever hiding.
If you go into F for Fake expecting a straightforward narrative on a couple or maybe trio of conmen you might be disappointed. The wild stories of Elmyr's forgeries and Irving's fake autobiography are covered but not the central premise. As a side note, Welles' pronunciation of 'biography' as 'bee-ography' may throw viewers off. Instead, go into F for Fake knowing that the wool will be pulled over your eyes and enjoy the deceptions.
It's like that game Two Truths & A Lie. Here is my version:
I was on a Broadway stage.
I once got five bowling strikes in a row.
I built my own house.
Which version of the truth would you like?