F for Fake Review

F for Fake

This review is provided by guest contributor Nat Almirall. You can read more of Nat’s writing at Frothygirlz and The Flickcast.

In the opening scene Orson Welles performs a magic trick for two boys. In an unbroken shot, focused squarely on Welles’ immaculately gloved and deft palms, he turns a boy’s key into a coin, right before the boy’s—and our—very eyes. “And where is the key?” he announces. “Why, it’s in your pocket.” Cut to Welles’ point of view, looking down at the child, who reaches into his pocket and triumphantly pulls out the key.

The first one is the real trick—after all, the shot’s unbroken—the second may not be; Welles cuts to the child: He could have placed the key in the child’s pocket between takes. Did he? And if he did, does that make the trick any more deceptive?

That’s the question F for Fake explores: is there a line between truth and fakery? And if there is, who decides where it lies?

I write “explores” because Welles never quite answers the question; he just has a lot of fun with it, captivating boys with magic tricks, men with the luscious Oja Kodar, and us with the magnificent Welles himself.

The bulk of the film focuses on Elmyr de Hory, the Hungarian art forger whose original works, done in the style of Matisse, Modigliani, and Renoir (among others) and passed off as the real things, consistently fooled experts the world over. “If I said to an expert that one of my paintings was not a real Matisse, he would reply, ‘Of course, it’s nothing like his style’; if I said it was real, he would agree. What do the experts know?”

What do they know? And by extension what do we know? To go back to the opening scene, we know we’re watching the real Welles, and we’re seeing a real magic trick performed, but the whole sequence has a very cinematic feel. Is this a movie or a documentary? Welles cuts to a woman watching him. “Up to your old tricks, I see,” she says. “Why not? I’m a charlatan.” He responds, suggesting that the film we’re about to watch is a little of both.

Interwoven with Elmyr’s story is that of his acquaintance and biographer Clifford Irving, whose own claim to fame is his fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. Irving fooled his publishers into believing that he had exclusive access to Hughes due to three letters Irving had forged by studying Hughes’ own hand.

Finally, there is the dizzying tale of Oja Kodar, with whom Picasso was so taken he had her sit for him while he painted a series of nudes. Oja agreed on the condition that the portraits be given to her, to which Picasso assented, providing they never be sold. Months later, a gallery announced its acquisition of the artist’s latest work—each painting a masterpiece—and Picasso was livid. He booked the earliest flight to the gallery, cursing and steaming all throughout the trip, but when he arrived, not one of the paintings could he recognize.

All three are fascinating and entertaining, entertaining and fascinating to watch, but there’s an air of suspicion running through F for Fake, as Welles frequently shows us the cameras, sound boards, and even his own camera man as a reminder that, at all times, we’re watching something on film, which, like his characters and Welles himself, is a medium of trickery. To allay our suspicions, he assures us that for the next hour or so, everything he says will be only the complete truth.

And technically this is perhaps Welles’ finest film. He employs jump cuts, zooms, whip pans, double exposures… The pace is so swift, Welles gives us a freeze frame to catch our breath. It’s a whirlwind of cinema, which is largely Welles’ intent—to give you a flurry of images that dazzle, at times befuddle, but always keep you on your toes. And yet, the technique isn’t distracting, as it would be in the hands of a lesser director simply calling attention to his or her skill. Here, it serves the film, and what I suspect is Welles’ point: that even though it’s a documentary, remember that it’s also a movie, and there may still be some hanky-panky. That point may be obvious, but how often do you watch a documentary and maintain critical objectivity? It’s easy to get caught up, but now I can’t watch a documentary without questioning whether I’m seeing the real story. It’s a powerful film that redefines the way you watch.

If F for Fake has a flaw, it is Welles. The Director permeates the film throughout–narrating, starring, delivering clever asides that show us how clever Welles is. At times he comes off as the father or uncle trying to look “cool” (that’s what you kids call it, right? “Cool”?) for the younger bunch while holding them at arm’s length. Well, maybe that’s not quite right, because Welles never comes off as buffoonish, but when he tries to be warm and engaging, he succeeds only in the latter. You can hug Altman, but you can’t hug Welles.

Nevertheless, the most self-indulgent scenes are still fun—his reading of a Kipling poem is sublime. His dialogue with Oja, though a bit forced, is nevertheless forceful. And I confess my favorite scene is of Welles eating two dozen oysters and then asking for his steak—after several lobsters the size of Manhattan have already been served.

There’s a shot early on of Oja walking to a car. The image is shown on screen in the studio, as though we’re watching a daily. To the left and in the background are film canisters, banded yellow, blue, and red. Both the footage we’re watching, as well as the studio, are shot in deep focus, with the screen sitting perfectly in the center. Welles intersperses it with more footage, of Oja, and of the men ostensibly noticing her, sans studio, then cuts back to the studio and so on. We never see the men in the same shot as Oja; were they actually looking at her, or are we watching something Welles filmed thousands of miles away and edited together in the studio? Are we being tricked? Will we ever know? The only truth is that we don’t. — Nat