Reviews

Reviews

F For Fake

F For Fake

Vérités et Mensonges / Fake! / ? (About Fakes)

Orson Welles

France, 1974

Credits

Review by Tom Huddleston

Posted on 16 July 2007

Source Eureka!/Masters Of Cinema DVD

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As both actor and director, Orson Welles experiences and expresses joy more convincingly than perhaps any other artist of the cinema. It may be bittersweet or compromised, doomed to sudden and inevitable extinction; it may be a momentary flash in an otherwise dark, overwrought tale. But from the thrill of the newspaper business in Citizen Kane to the opulent nostalgia of The Magnificent Ambersons, from the giddy trickery of The Lady from Shanghai’s final funhouse sequence to the boisterous, tragicomic self-awareness of Chimes at Midnight, whenever such a moment arrives it is pure, undeniable and infectious. Welles’ best sequences brim with the sheer ecstasy of simultaneously living and creating, and doing both freely and to the fullest.

F for Fake is perhaps the most glorious and sustained example of this tendency. The director always claimed to take more pleasure from magic tricks and misdirection than from filmmaking (and often compared the two), and here he finally took the chance to combine those two great loves, not to mention several others—art, philosophy, mortality, fine dining, travel, his current mistress Oja Kodar and the unmistakeable sound of his own voice.

Ostensibly a documentary about famous forgers, For for Fake tips its hand from almost the first frame. The opening sequence features Orson performing magic tricks for children on a deserted railway platform before a highly visible camera crew, insisting that the key he transforms into a coin ‘is not symbolic,’ but in fact offering us an ironic primer to understanding all that follows. The film luxuriates in misdirection, from the opening statement promising that ‘for the next hour everything you see and hear will be the truth’ (the film is one hour, 25 minutes long) to the simple fact that a film pretending to explore fakes and charlatans paints a more honest and believable picture of its central figure than any before or since — the added misdirection being that the figure in question is not supposed subjects Elmyr De Hory or Clifford Irving, but, of course, Orson Welles.

De Hory was, at the time of the film’s release, the most famous art forger in the world, and the subject of the bestselling book Fake! by Clifford Irving. A few years later Irving himself turned out to be a forger of a very different kind, publishing the supposed memoirs of Howard Hughes, a book which turned out to be a fake… or was it? Was Irving really a student of De Hory’s barefaced technique, or was he a dupe? Was his beautiful wife really the brains behind it all? Was the voice on the telephone denying any contact with Irving really that of Howard Hughes? The story broke worldwide, and Irving appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Welles and Kodar were living in close proximity to both men at the time, on the island of Ibiza, and decided to rope them into a little experiment they were planning, for a new kind of documentary film.

Their stories form much of the first part of F For Fake, and barring certain welcome digressions it seems like a fairly straightforward documentary, albeit one in which the filmmaker is continually popping up and urging us to question everything we’re seeing, however ‘true’ it might be. The different strands of meaning inherent in De Hory’s fascinating and controversial career are inspected and toyed with, particularly his assertion that art dealers are all just frauds themselves, eager to hock whatever pseudo-Modigliani he could foist on them as long as it would turn a profit. This is complemented by Welles’ own contention that the real villains in all this are the so-called ‘experts’, the narrow minded professionals who charge vast sums of money to pontificate and (supposedly) authenticate ‘art’, but can be hoodwinked every bit as easily as the rest of us: a ripe subject for an artist whose work had suffered critical mauls and revisions for four long decades. Underlying it all are questions of what constitutes ‘real’ and ‘fake’, whether beauty itself is enough, and beyond that the question of what the basic terms here even mean, articulated brilliantly by Welles glancing through a warped glass bauble and intoning, in that sardonic baritone, the killer lines from Kipling’s “Conundrum of the Workshops”: ‘It’s pretty, but is it art?’

The same question might apply to F for Fake, and be perhaps equally irrelevant. Some passages of the film are inescapably beautiful, most notably the ornate form of Chartres Cathedral looming out of the mist, while Welles indulges in his most philosophical and evocative passage of voiceover: ‘“Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.”’ Whenever Kodar graces the screen the cinematography steps up a gear, as though Welles the director is sensually excited by the mere presence of her across the lens: there’s an inescapable voyeurism in these passages, but it’s tempered by the couple’s evident affection for one another.

Elsewhere the photography seems strictly functional, capturing the two key subjects speaking plainly to camera, or the director in a restaurant pontificating before a crowd of friends and onlookers—ironically (or intentionally?) the only unconvincing moment in the movie. Michel Legrand’s original score strikes the only other bum note, a rather weedy procession of kitschy 70’s light Franco-jazz more appropriate to a Peugeot commercial. Otherwise, the soundtrack is as complex and structured as the virtuoso editing, dropping in words and phrases to illustrate or counter a particular point, flashing back or forward to emphasize or question the action onscreen. Rumour has it that Welles spent a solid year compiling the film, and it shows, turning what could have been a rather dry intellectual exercise into something vivid and endlessly fascinating.

But the real joy of the movie is Welles himself. His personality infuses every moment: wry, mischievous, endlessly probing; loveable, infuriating, devastatingly intelligent but always deeply human. He fills the screen even when he’s not on it, and one is left eagerly anticipating his next appearance. The adoring glances of his onscreen audiences may grate at first, but soon the viewer finds himself in the same position, smiling at the director’s extravagance, revelling in the irrepressible enthusiasm of Welles the impassioned orator, the devilish raconteur, the decadent epicure. (Perhaps the high point of the entire film comes in the restaurant scene, as Welles pushes back his plate of discarded mussel shells, crying ‘take this away and bring me the steak au poivre!’) Even in the dazzling final ‘trick’ sequences, written by and starring Kodar (in various states of undress), it is Welles who dominates, narrating the fabulous story, drifting in and out of the frame in a series of misty dissolves, and finally revealing his own devious sleight of hand with a wry, ill-behaved grin.

And we forgive his indulgences, every time. Only Welles could have gotten away with a film like F for Fake, because only Welles was as outwardly sceptical regarding his own genius, while simultaneously glorifying his own humility. It’s a high wire across which the director strolls without a care, seemingly unaware of the vertiginous drop into grotesque self-parody on one side, tedious grandfatherly lecturing on the other. As much as any precedent-shattering camera movement in Kane, the sheer rebellious pleasure ingrained in every last frame of F for Fake is a mark of Welles’ true and lasting genius.

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