REVIEW: ‘F for Fake’ (1973)

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Grade: A-

Ever have one of those moments where you begin to think that everything you’ve ever known is a lie? Ever have what I like to call a Truman Show moment? No? Then you should check out Orson Welles free-form essay about the world of fakery, appropriately titled F for Fake.

The last effort that the great Orson Welles put forth as a director is part documentary, part narrative, and full of creativity. It pieces together incomplete documentary footage from a Francois Reichenbach endeavor, moments of self-examination of Welles own life and work, and mini-narratives and magic tricks that have you questioning your own reality as the film progresses. The film itself pulls a fast one on you as Welles reveals some of the lies he’s hidden within the 98 minute running time, and then leaves it open for the viewer to find the truth.

The focus on the film is Elmyr de Hory, the greatest art forger of the 20th Century. De Hory has the unique ability to replicate almost any artists work so exactly that even the foremost experts can’t tell the difference between his work and the real thing. Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Renoir – he can do them all. Art forgery is a multi-million dollar industry and de Hory has profited greatly from his talent. Art lovers will be amazed as it is revealed that there are an unknown number of forgeries currently hanging in museums, claiming to be the original.

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The work of Elmyr de Hory inspired another one of the 20th Centuries greatest fakers – Elmyr’s biographer Clifford Irving. Irving wrote a fake biography of de Hory and then made national news for writing a fake biography of famous recluse Howard Hughes. Irving fooled the world into believing that he had gained exclusive access to Hughes and had several interviews with the mysterious millionaire.

The moments when F for Fake succeeds the most, however, is when Welles turns the camera on himself and examines his own use of fakery. Welles himself executed one of the biggest fakes in media history with his 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast, in which he got radio listeners to believe the country was being invaded by aliens. Citizen Kane was also at one point intended to be a fake biography of Howard Hughes. The discussion is aided by brilliant, tongue-in-cheek interviews with Welles collaborators Joseph Cotten and Paul Stewart.

The film moves along at a brisk pace, with quick cuts as the film essay moves from point to point. The whole affair is guided by Welles magnificent narration. I could listen to Welles narrate for weeks, especially when he breaks into verse poetry from Rudyard Kipling or his own eloquent monologues. His deep baritone is so mesmerizing that it becomes even easier to get sucked into his world of trickery before you realize that you have been had.

Welles does not attempt a film that gives you all the answers. The film is mostly rhetorical; raising questions about what defines fakery and the validity of art. One of the problems of the film is that it raises too many questions, instead of focusing in on a few specific points.

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In a sordid way, Welles uses the film as an answer to the critics who grew louder as his film career came to its climax. By discrediting the art experts who are unable to distinguish the real paintings from the fake, Welles attempts to discredit the importance of expertise. What determines the value of a work of art if not an expert? The artist? Or the person who looks to that art to find truth? This reinforces the idea of subjectivity in art, and that truth is in the eye of the beholder.

At the same time that Welles attempts to discredit the experts, he embraces the market for art. Clifford Irving points out that there would not be art forgery if there weren’t buyers willing to lay down big bucks for the work. Art museums and unknowing private collectors have all purchased de Hory’s work. Welles uses a meta-cinematic approach to appropriately thank the public for buying into his art and/or fakery with a monologue in an editing studio with strings of film surrounding him.

F for Fake is itself an impressive technical achievement. The aforementioned fast-paced editing is set against fantastic original music by Michael Legrand that fits in excellently with Welles’ narration.

When it comes to trickery, there is no better guide than the great Orson Welles. If its a debate you’re looking for, see this movie with a few friends because there is no shortage of topics to discuss.

SPOILERS – Some Fakes Within the Film Itself (from Wikipedia)
- During the girl watching scene, a couple of frontal long shots of the girl approaching are not of Oja Kodar but of her sister, with the same dress.
- During the Howard Hughes segment, one of the archival footage features actor Don Ameche, and not Howard Hughes.
- In the title sequence, practitioners is replaced by “practioners”.

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