Directed by Orson Welles
85 min, Digital, PG, 1976
Playing as part of the BFI’s Orson Welles: The Great Disruptor Season, screening until 30 August.
The BFI’s Orson Welles season has showcased the cinematic titan’s well-known achievements, not least the unavoidable monolith that is Citizen Kane. But filmgoers wanting to explore the outer regions of Welles’s filmography should make it their mission to check out one of the season’s screenings of F for Fake, a short and mischievous 1973 essay film that draws on Welles’s skill with editing, his unmistakable voice, and his interests in trickery and art (and the fine line between the two). It is a freewheeling piece of work that was hailed as a radical formal breakthrough upon its release.
The first time we see Welles on screen, he is dressed in outrageous fashion, rocking a long cape, velvet gloves and a magician-type hat, which is appropriate garb given that he swiftly sets about pulling a set of sleight of hand magic trick on his audience of a single rapt child. Right away, with twinkle firmly in the eye, Welles is showing you that pretty much everything you will see over the next 90 minutes should be taken with a magician’s pinch of salt, despite what will be many tongue in cheek protestations to the contrary. After this initial flourish of now-you-see-it trickery, F For Fake at first shifts into what seems to be a more conventional, lighthearted investigation of a famous art forger – one Elmyr de Hory – the Hungarian faker of 20th Century masters, and his biographer Clifford Irving. But Welles’s film doesn’t settle long into this groove.
Soon we are veering off on a variety of tangents that cover issues of authorship, identity, fakery and the art world. Welles wanders the globe, ruminating on subjects from Picasso’s muses to the beauty of Chartres’s cathedrals. Throughout it all, he stops to make the filmmaking process obvious, pulling back to show himself chuffing away on a cigar in the editing room as he ponders the scene he has just shown the viewer, winding the film back and forth, and sometimes wandering around with the camera teams in full view. It might sometimes feels like a film that is off on too many tangents at once, but if you are going to talk about fakery, it surely makes sense to show the counterfeit nature of film itself.
But F for Fake is even more tangled than it first appears, and even its actual production history mirrors its themes of illusion and uncertainty. Welles ended up building his picture from a variety of sources over time, both archival and specifically created, stringing his film essay together in such a way that in the end product it is not at all clear what is based in fact or what is a fictional embellishment anymore. For example, some elements of the film were based on real life events and people. F for Fake actually began life as a TV project, as British journalist Richard Drewett and director Francois Reichenbach was tasked by the BBC in 1970 to make a 40 minute documentary on the aforementioned forger Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving. Reichenbach wanted Welles to narrate the finished film. Welles refused, but the film appealed to his interests in conjuring, the art of illusion, painting and biographical enquiry. When he heard that Reichenbach had footage he had been unable to use, he jumped at the chance to rework this material into a film of his own.
With financing from Reichenbach, Welles was able to start working on his own short film using the material he had been gifted, and to this he added new material he shot in Ibiza and Paris, which featured both Reichenbach and the outsized figure of forger de Hory. But the project ground to a halt, until the revelation that de Hory’s biographer, Irving, was himself a forger (forging a biography of tycoon Howard Hughes), galvanised Welles into wrapping the whole movie around the idea that nothing is as it seems, that everything is fake. Welles went on to take stock footage, newly shot footage and anything else that took his fancy to weave together a non linear essay on fakery.
From the eccentric de Hory and his slippery biographer Irving, Welles moves on to wax lyrical over the beautiful cathedrals of old Europe, and then to relate a rambling tale of a beautiful and mysterious Picasso muse who took 22 of the legendary artist’s paintings as payment for sitting for him, only for Picasso to later discover the young woman’s grandfather was an expert forger who proceeded to fake all 22 of those paintings, and then burned the originals. Welles even engages in a very odd recreation of the confrontation between Picasso and the grandfather at one point, with his own girlfriend Oja Kodak voicing both the girl and Picasso and Welles narrating for the grandfather – with Welles voicing the plea to recognise the talent involved in “creating an entire Picasso period at once”.
This is a bold and cheeky approach, but more important than the question of whether this story is even true is the more serious issue about whether it matters who’s name is attached to a piece of art. Who cares, Welles asks at one point as he stares up at Chartres, who built such a magnificent building?
Aside from the fun involved in letting yourself be bamboozled, F for Fake can also be enjoyed for the engaging, pacy editing, which at times gives the film a feel of a slightly tipsy tangental ramble. The film has been called ‘rhizomatic’ – its form spreading out like a set of roots underground spreading out. At its centre is Welles the magician, laughing at what he can get away with. When you consider this is the man who scared a nation into panic through his War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938, what better role to play?