Directed by Orson Welles
“Art is a lie.” That’s a line delivered by Orson Welles near the end of the film and the biggest takeaway I found from F for Fake, a documentary that strings together multiple stories of forgery.
Orson Welles is front and center in the story. He introduces us to the characters, mingles with them, participates in dramatic reenactments, and the film opens with Welles conducting a magic trick on a young child. This short scene demands that you question its reality. Welles insists on letting you behind the curtain, explaining what he’s about to do while showing us the men behind the camera. He is transparent, and yet the amount of camera angles (as well as pristine lighting) suggests that this supposedly organic moment is actually quite staged.
So Welles is lying to us. After the first few minutes he dives into what ties this story together, the forged paintings of Elmyr de Hory, but because of that first scene it’s hard to take anything he says seriously. And that’s the point.
Elmyr forged countless paintings and drawings of famous artists and sold them for a profit. Depending on who you ask he did it out of necessity (no one was buying his own works) or because he was simple a madman. Though Welles interacts directly with Elmyr, the most important source on the man’s life is Elmyr’s biographer Clifford Irving.
In keeping with the way the film opens, Welles tells us up front that this story is interesting precisely because Irving himself is a fraud. The biographer, apparently inspired by Elmyr’s confidence, claimed to be the biographer for the famous recluse Howard Hughes.
Both Elmyr and Irving take delight in foolish supposed art critics. Elmyr talks at length about the real value of art, and if he can fool the critics, the ones who determine the value of a given piece, then who’s to say his work isn’t valid? The value we place on something is inherently a lie, something shown to be easily tampered with.
Welles uses these stories to extend the metaphor to his own life. He lied his way onstage as a teenager and used that to jumpstart his own theatre career. Later he would make a name for himself through the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, a fictitious narrative presented as real and which fooled a certain number of people. When another man attempted to recreate the broadcast in a different country he was put in jail. Welles went on to direct and star in Citizen Kane, a dramatization of the life of a real world figure, William Randolph Hearst.
This is how he gets to the idea that “art is a lie.”
Welles will end the film with a dramatic retelling of an event in Pablo Picasso’s life in which a young woman– well it’s complicated. As he tells the story, Picasso was enamored with a woman and wanted to paint her. She agreed so long as she kept all twenty-two paintings. This was a lie because Picasso later found out that the woman’s grandfather (?) forged the paintings.
He tells this to us through a visual reenactment of the supposed paintings, using as a model his then girlfriend Oja Kodar. Welles confronts Kodar on a dark, misty set, and the scene plays like any dramatic conclusion to a narrative film we’ve seen before.
And then Welles tells us this last story was fake, which didn’t feel like too much of a surprise given the way in which it was shot and presented.
I’ve never seen a movie quite like this one before. It’s entertaining and surprising, but it’s such a strange blend of drama and realism. It works because it feels so alive, so experimental. I found myself questioning everything so early on into the film that beyond just trying to keep up with the multiple story threads, I was looking for any clues which might hint at the facade Welles so passionately created.
Watching a movie this way you look into the performances of everyday life, of people who might not realize they’re performing. Welles actually states this explicitly early in the film by spying on men on a crowded street as Kodar walks past and filming their reactions. He tells us that they are actors in a movie and don’t even realize it.
So what is real, what’s an act, what’s a lie? It’s all something different from the truth, but I guess everything we do is a performance on some level. We perform for ourselves, for each other, for unseen audiences, for people we hope to impress, etc.
Up Next: It (2017), The Babadook (2014), Witness for the Prosecution (1957)