Christopher Machell Criterion

Criterion Review: F for Fake

★★★★★

Ostensibly a documentary about art forger Elmyr de Hory and his equally slippery biographer, Clifford Irving, Orson Welles’ last completed film is more an elusive meditation on the nature of artifice, forgery and reality. F for Fake is a sometimes maddening, always brilliant disruption of the conventional documentary.

Opening with Welles himself playing a magician, it’s clear from the outset that F for Fake is no ordinary documentary. Indeed, in a genre where objectivity and distance are prized, the author centring himself in the frame is a definite no-no. As the film progresses, Welles’ breaks virtually every rule in the documentarian’s book, not least of which consistently and gleefully signalling the artifice of his own pseudo-real narrative.

The subject, the aforementioned de Hory, is presented virtually as a mirror to Welles himself. Both sell their lies through charisma and performance – both gladly admitting to their own chicanery. There’s even a Wellesian twinkle in de Hory’s eyes as he boasts about passing off forged Modigliani’s to credulous art dealers, captured by the frequent freeze frames that punctuate the film’s interviews.

F for Fake’s numerous stylistic devices, and Welles’ own Harry Lime-esque narration, more often resemble a free-form biopic than a real documentary, but even that designation feels inadequate. The strange use of grainy archival footage, interviews, pieces de camera from Welles, and footage allegedly borrowed from other films, creates a collage of form and genre. The frequent shots of monitors displaying interviews with Welles’ annotations and frequent digressions constantly draw attention to the artificial restructuring of reality, and several shots of Welles himself reflected in shop windows and mirrors underscore his own duplicity.

As F for Fake opens, one could be forgiven for mistaking it as an auteurist exercise in self-indulgence, an incoherent mish-mash of jazz riffs and discursive dead ends. Yet, in surrendering to the author’s voice – helped in no small part by Welles’ perennially rakish charm – we are carried along on his journey, revelling in the open fraudulence and celebration of artifice. In reframing forgery as a performance where the duped are complicit in their deception, F for Fake asks us to honestly question the validity of ‘real’ authorship. We must ask ourselves whether a cathedral is any less beautiful for its creators’ anonymity.

The pointed bullshit peaks when Welles spins us a yarn about a beautiful girl and a Scandinavian jazz trombonist. Played by his own lover, Oja Koder (who co-wrote the film), she charmed Pablo Picasso into painting her twenty-two nude portraits, before her forger father mimicked and sold them. It’s obviously a tall tale, yet its moral feels no less potent; when Welles excuses himself from his deceitful shenanigans with a practised verbal sleight of hand, we are left to ponder the gulf between reality and truth.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell