Orson Welles had a mixture of both a tough and glamorous career. He made wonderful film after wonderful film, but the “suits” always mucked up his films and tore them apart. Only in a few instances did he get to make the films he wanted, and even then he had budgetary issues. Really, if we’re to be honest, Citizen Kane is the only film Welles had real freedom with his entire career as a filmmaker.
He was called a charlatan, a liar, a thief, a faker, a poser, and various other things by his peers. Why, Citizen Kane was even booed at the Academy Awards every single time it was mentioned by name. Welles struggled to make films almost his entire career, and when he did succeed in making films they were always taken away and tampered with without his consent or input. Welles famously skipped his daughter’s wedding to write his infamous 50-some-odd page letter detailing what he didn’t like regarding the studio cut of Touch of Evil. Eventually, when all people knew about Welles were the lies, Welles decided to play himself up, join in on the lies, and turn himself into the larger-than-life character we know him as today. The real man turned into the lies that were told about him, and to a certain extent he reveled in it.
But here we stand at the end of his career, with the last film he actually completed and released; with one of maybe only two films which he had complete artistic control and of which there is a definitive version, curated and overseen by Orson Welles himself.
F for Fake.
I do not care what anyone else tells you or whatever it may say on IMDb. This film is NOT a documentary. It is, instead, an exploration of the documentarian form. Welles loved to reinvent genres and ideas created by other people. He dabbled in the literary adaption, fictitious biography based on true events, and even the classical Hollywood style of the film noir.
But if F for Fake is not a documentary, what is it? It certainly is a document, of sorts, about a scandal involving art forger Elmyr de Hory (a real life, world class art forger), his biographer, and a fake Howard Hughes biography. It is about those things, in a very loose, wellesian fashion. But, being a Welles picture, it is more than the sum of its parts, and this is mainly due to how the story is told via cross-cutting, montage, and the purposefully confusing narration provided by Orson Welles.
The film ends up being less of a documentary about art forgery, and more of an essay on what it is like to be branded a liar. Judging from what we see in the film, Elmyr was actually a very talented painter and artist, but his work was never appreciated, so he instead decided to reproduce and mimic other paintings and sell them to art galleries. Supposedly an entire collection, at one of the biggest galleries in the world, is made up entirely of fakes painted by Elmyr. But, moving back to the painter himself, he is such a good faker that he doesn’t even have to fake specific paintings, but can instead create his own works of art in the style of different painters. He really was a talented man who was labeled as a fake, and because of that became an actual faker just so he could give a big middle finger to the art world.
This brings us to why Welles probably decided to make this film: Welles saw an ironic mirror of himself in Elmyr and decided to exploit it. Thus, without us even being aware of it, Welles takes documentary footage directed by a friend of his, shoots new footage to mix into it (both documentary and scripted), ties in some details of his personal life, and turns out a final product that can only be described as a very strange autobiography.
Overall, this film is very funny and very fun. In a lot of ways this is the older brother to films like “Exit Through the Gift Shop” — that is, “documentaries” that aren’t actually documentaries, but are rather ponderings on their subjects (essays, if you follow my train of thought); not entirely truthful to the events, yet not entirely false, but always plainly honest when displaying an opinion on the topic at hand.
What I find most fascinating about this film, though, is that it’s clearly NOT about art forgery, and it’s clearly NOT about Elmyr de Hory. This is very much a Wellesian autobiography. And what better way for the biggest self-proclaimed liar in cinematic history to present an essay and biography of himself than with a film about lies?
At the end of the film we hear Welles says “Do you think I should confess? To what? Committing masterpieces?” (while “in character” as Elmyr), he’s actually not talking about Elmyr, but rather is talking about himself. It’s as if he is saying, “What do you think Hollywood? I’m a fake? I’m a liar? I’ve made a mockery of you and your studio system? What am I guilty of other than working through your political garbage making masterpiece after masterpiece? You have tried to stop me, and yet you cannot.”
F For Fake is all at once self-indulgent, mocking, experimental, condescending, radical, and a hoot-and-a-half of a fun time. It’s Welles at his most Wellesian.