Thursday, 29 July 2021

F for Fake (Verites et Mensonges) (1973)


F for Fake

It is time for my last movie of 1973. Finally. When I started this year, the canals where I live were frozen over and now it is the tail end of summer. Five months. But 1973 has also been a great year in movies and there has been so much to watch.

“F for Fake” is, I am afraid, not among the best of the year. It is just too self-indulgent for my taste and, well, rather chaotic.

The background of this strange movie is that Orson Welles was hired to edit a documentary by Francois Reichenbach about an artist who forged famous paintings, Elmyr Hora, but in the process the stories covered were developing and apparently this became Welles own project. As such he made it a meditation on fakes, faking and fakers. What is real and what is fake and what does it even mean?

It is not even a documentary anymore, instead bits of stories are thrown up which may or may not be real. Everybody involved are to some extent cheats and we end up doubting if anything we have watched has any credibility at all. And we get an awful lot of Orson Welles himself.

It is almost hopeless to discern any structure in all this, but the main threads are these:

1.       Elmyr Hora is a Hungarian art forger on Ibiza who can copy any painting and sold these as the real thing.

2.       Elmyr’s biography was written by an English journalist, Clifford Irving, who told the story of the forger, but was himself denounced as a forger for an autobiography on Howard Hughes.

3.       The art dealers who bought Elmyr’s paintings, sold them on with a huge profit and Elmyr saw very little of the money, the cheat being cheated.

4.       Welles himself hoaxed the American public with his radio show “War of the Worlds”

5.       A story is told about Oja Kodar, a Hungarian woman, who befriended Picasso and got him to make 22 paintings of her. When they were sold, Picasso were ready to denounce these as fakes, but did not recognize any of these.

All these stories are intertwined and rather than focusing on the stories, Welles constantly as the unreliable narrator returns to the idea of the fake, which in turn becomes very meta.

This insubstantial idea is both its strength and its weakness. By constantly tearing us away from the stories we are kept off-balance, and it is difficult to actually understand the story, but that is also the point. We should not fully understand the stories, just the element of the fake. This works well for some time, but 85 minutes is a long time to be kept off-balance with stories only half told, disjointed information and the constant reminder that we should not believe anything.

In a sense the film works so well that we get absolutely nothing out of it. Everything and everybody are miscredited. For entertainment, for wealth or for simply being a pathological fraud.

The honest truth is that I got so confused in the monotony on the fake theme that I started to get bored and that is never a good thing. A good deal less Welles, much less pontification and a semblance of structure would have done wonders for an idea and a story that deserves to be told.

A recommendation? Maybe. This is not for everybody, but I guess one should watch it, at least once.      


  1. I found this really entertaining as a mental exercise. Is it great? Probably not, but it does more or less feel like a documentary version of an Agatha Christie mystery.

    1. Yes, it is more a mental exercise than a documentary and I appreciate it as that. Welles tried to downplay the stories in order to keep the idea of Fake in focus and he succeed so well, that I cannot exactly describe those stories. Is that good or bad?

  2. As someone who loves Orson Welles about as much as someone outside the field of cinephile would caricature a cinephile like me as loving, I dug the hell out of this. Aside from my love of Orson, though, what I think made it work as well as it did was that I went into it with the knowledge that it wasn't going to be a straight 'story' film; I'd had this described to me as a "film essay", and that preconception was exactly what I needed to frame my initial watch: it's not quite a documentary, not quite a narrative film, but rather like a thesis, a study or dissertation on a topic that Welles has just happened to put together in cinematic form. That along with the added knowledge of how this film's editing style was so groundbreaking and influential to films that would follow it, even several decades down the line, was what made me appreciate this as much as I did. That it was also as meta as it was, which almost always hits a good note with me, and featured Welles doing his bombastic 'Welles' thing, just made it equally as entertaining, personally.

    1. I think a lot of it stands and falls with your tolerance for Welles. There is a lot of Welles here, like, really a lot. If you are cool with that I can see this hitting home. Myself, I got got an overload of him real fast. There is something very self-indulgent about his presentation here. This is a guy who is quite impressed with himself and likes to place himself at the center of things and it gets a bit too much for me. I understand what you mean and I think I might have been there too if there had been a bit less Welles in this.