F for Fake (1973)

Documentary, Comedy
Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, Joseph Cotten, François Reichenbach
A documentary about fraud and fakery.
  • Saguenay Films Company:
  • PG Rated:
  • IMDB link IMDB:
  • 12 Mar 1975 Released:
  • 26 Apr 2005 DVD Release:
  • N/A Box office:
  • Orson Welles Writer:
  • Orson Welles Director:
  • N/A Website:
Orson Welles as a Cretan?10/10
Writer/Director Orson Welles' F for Fake is a fast-paced, complex, surrealistic and philosophically thought-provoking documentary about fraud, fakery, and fictions. Even though its style is still novel when seen now, 30 years after F for Fake's first, quiet release in Europe, it was even more unusual in the context of the 1970s, and it presaged "MTV-style editing" by almost 10 years (considering that the style wasn't even the norm on MTV when that cable channel first appeared).

Even trying to tell someone what the film is literally about is quite complex (fitting for something that gives its title on screen as "?: About Fakery"), but we could say that it circles around six primary personalities, if we include Welles himself, who is frequently present on screen as a narrator/tour guide/resident magician. The core focus may be famed art forger Elmyr de Hory, who is supposedly responsible for a large number of fake Matisses, Modiglianis, Picassos, and so on that are hanging in museums around the world. Next up we have Clifford Irving, who wrote a biography of Elmyr de Hory, but who is perhaps more famous for writing a fake "authorized" biography of Howard Hughes. Next, we have Howard Hughes himself. Then there's Picasso. And finally, as a bookend to the film, we meet co-writer and long-time Welles confidant/partner Oja Kodar, who has many functions with respect to Welles in the film--assistant, surrogate, object of desire, and so on, and who had many more, perhaps questionable, functions with respect to Welles outside of the film.

Welles moves from topic to topic in a quick, stream of consciousness fashion, which is fascinating to think about in the context of the film, since stream of consciousness is by its nature spontaneous and unplanned, whereas the kind of meticulous editing that Welles does here takes months to plan, experiment with and finalize. So the apparent stream of consciousness is itself fakery, as suits a film that explores such ideas on countless levels.

Welles also weaves fact and fiction in F for Fake seamlessly, often without comment. The story of Oja Kodar and Picasso is fabricated, but much of the other material is more documentary in nature than one might think. It just happens to be documentary about creating fictions, whether impostors, as in de Hory's paintings (and amusingly, Welles himself--who had formal visual art skills--does a cartoonish portrait of Howard Hughes and signs it "Elmyr"); deceptive statements covering fictions, as in Irving's fake biography of Howard Hughes; manipulating public perceptions, as in the case of Hughes' and Picasso's public relations; creating artificial situations, as in Kodar's "piece" involving recording the reactions of men to her stroll through traffic; or combinations of all of these tactics, as in Welles' own work as an artist/entertainer, including the War of the Worlds radio broadcast (1938), which is portrayed here with clips from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) without identifying the conflation, Citizen Kane (1941), which was a thinly veiled portrayal of William Randolph Hearst but which Welles claims here was initially intended to be about Hughes, and of course, F for Fake itself. There are many other ways in which "fakery" is broached (even including subtle references to simulacra with items such as maps). The above are just the most conspicuous threads in the film. There is also a lot of criticism of "expertise"--Welles even conveys a kind of thoroughgoing skepticism as to its verisimilitude.

There are many ideas to be gleaned from F for Fake, but one of the most important, and certainly one intended by Welles, is that perhaps we're a bit too harsh when it comes to the conventional wisdom on frauds and fakery. Welles invokes the more accepted forms of fraud/fakery such as fictions and magic, and suggests that perhaps what is most important isn't the status of a work in terms of whether it is derivative or has precursors, or an artist's intent when it comes to originality and such, but merely the aesthetic quality of the work in question. If we believe a painting to be good, aesthetically, is it any less good aesthetically when we later learn that it is "merely" a copy of a Matisse, or a fake Picasso? The work itself didn't change--only our background knowledge has changed. Is our background knowledge part of the art object that we're judging? These are not easy questions to answer. A lot of ink has been spilled in the philosophical field of aesthetics over such issues. Even if we have an answer we're comfortable with--and mine happens to agree with Welles'--we have to admit that it's not a very clear-cut issue. At least not as clear-cut as the popular attitude towards frauds/fakery has it.

But even if you were to watch F for Fake without cognizing the ideational content, it would still be a fascinating and rewarding experience. The cinematography is as varied as a typical Oliver Stone film, and it's frequently beautiful (just look at the marvelous shots of Welles sitting on the bench in a park at "different times of the year"). The cuts from one shot to the next are captivating, with Welles even using edits to construct sentences. Welles will say a few words, he'll immediately cut to Irving, then to de Hory, and maybe back to himself, with all the words flowing together as a single line of "dialogue". There are also stark contrasts with this style, as in the latter section of the film, which has longer periods of Welles and Kodar simply standing in a large empty space, talking to each other, verbally relaying the story of Kodar, Picasso and Kodar's grandfather.

While F for Fake isn't exactly "light viewing", and anyone not acclimated to documentaries might have difficulty appreciating it, it is a masterpiece that any cineaste should be familiar with.
F For Fantastic, Farouche, Fanciful, Farcical, Fabulous.5/10

There is so much zest, wit, fun, cheek, energy in this supremely entertaining film, that it's a crime that Orson Welles never directed another one. It's packed with as many ideas and potential future directions as CITIZEN KANE, but bizarrely hasn't received an nth of that classic's acclaim. Indeed only Godard's later documentaries seem to be at all influenced by this delightful fancy.

The film dazzles on so many levels. As a story about five interesting characters - two art forgers, a charlatan biographer, Howard Hughes (famous recluse, and disseminator of misleading information and doubles), and the great Orsino himself, myth-maker and magician. Their stories, fascinating in themselves, mingle, juxtapose and clash, to provide a complex essay on the nature of art, the links between illusion, life, forgery and artifice.

Elmyr is a master forger whose 'works' appear in many galleries. His story makes us ask: what is art? What is it about art that moves us - the thing itself, or its perceived value? In an age of mechanical reproduction, can authenticity survive, is it a viable (or even desirable) option? Does any of this actually matter? Maybe because everything in a post-modern culture is reproduced, the aura of the original work of art (pace Benjamin) becomes even more powerful. Or maybe a proliferation of fakes, doubles, illusions asks us to profoundly question received truths, official versions, 'authorities', who would make us believe in repressive wholes and canons, stories that tell one experience, and deny many others. Art itself is a forgery, of nature or the imagination - the forger is little different from an interpreter (e.g. Welles and Shakespeare): he cannot help stamping his own personality on the work.

These questions are very complex, and cannot be grasped in one viewing. The film's form is bewildering and exhilirating. Welles promises us, in this tale of fakery, truth for an hour, but this is a truth we must make out for ourselves. Breathless narration; visual puns; the weaving of documentary footage, stills, reconstructions, other films; tireless, confusing editing; rapid subject changes; all manage to disrupt and complicate an essentially straightforward story.

Welles the narrator is an absolute delight, a jovial trickster, with his gorgeous hearty laugh, games, aphorisms, comments, allusions; and yet behind it all is an extraordinarily depressing account of his own career, the perception of failure and broken promises, and the onset of mortality.

The last 20 minutes is an extraordinary coup de cinema, as well as a masterpiece of storytelling. The Legrand music is playful and energetic, before finally slowing down for a very melancholy climax. This film is a remarkable one-off: frustrating, irritating, stimulating, astonishing, hilarious. It always pulls the rug from under your feet, and you gleefully await your next tumble. Only Bunuel began and ended his career with the same passion and genius, the same desire to demand the most from his audiences, refusing to rest on his considerable laurels. Absolutely wonderful.
The masterful legacy of the man who changed the history of modern cinema9/10

"F for fake" stands for the last movie Orson Welles really directed and, as for many artistic legacies it's the final demonstration of the genius of the artist, becoming some kind of briefing of his entire career.

It's hard to explain this movie and why I really enjoyed because, as many other Welles's movies, it's full of surprises and twists.

Filmed as a Documentary, this film introduces us the personae of Elmyr, a painter who lives out of painting copies of famous pictures of Van Gogh, Picasso, Vlaminck and many others and making them look like they're the original one. Welles also introduces to us two more people; an actress and a biographer.

With many resemblances to Welles's own life, the director of such wonderful pieces as "Citizen Kane" and "Touch of Evil" plays with the audience some sort of magical trickery. What is real and what is not? If Elmyr is able to paint a perfect copy of a famous picture and fool the world greatest experts, is he as good artist as the originals he's copying?

Working as a perfect metaphore of Welles own experiences in art (he's not only been movie director but radio speaker and even painter) "F for Fake" remains as a perfect legacy of the ideas of one of the greatest and most gifted cinema artists. Don't miss it!
Welles' last film is rambling, full of montage, and as provocative as ironically spellbinding10/10
Orson Welles's last full-length theatrical (ahem, emphasis on theatrical) film released before his death at times is almost like the 'News on the March' segment of Citizen Kane spread out in various spurts, and then totally played upon. Like the magician and prankster that he is (arguably one might consider Welles more of a prankster than as a textbook faker), F For Fake is as much about illusion as it is about the people who create the illusions. The film examines, chiefly, art, and not just the paintings by its subject Elmyr de Hory, but also film-making, writing (which includes signatures), architecture, and in a way a kind of lifestyle in general. It's extremely appropriate that Welles, who is always trying for a pure cinema (which is his genius, past the occasionally diverting hubris), can tackle on his 'true' subjects, Elmyr and writer Clifford Irving with such tact. And, somehow, like magicians probably have to, he slips by following the rules, fooling you every step of the way.

If this was just a film about its principal subjects- not including Welles himself as he has done (this is one of many films he starred, wrote and directed, but rarely has he been so candid about himself)- it would still hold some surface fascination. Coming from a generation that grew up after Elmyr had already passed on, and only knew mildly of the whole Howard Hughes story (of which Irving was apart of), this was all news. Which in a way made it hard to focus on here and there on the first viewing. Coincidentally with Welles's takes on the 'experts', I decided not to jump right away to conclusions like some critics even with film-making do. On the second viewing it all gelled together, like the deception in all the lines in Elmyr's Matisse's. We learn about some of Elmyr's history (including one historical note that gets only one brief mention as part of Welles's use of hints in all of his work). But it's not necessarily about that which becomes fascinating.

Just watching Elmyr, and him with Clifford Irving, the hoax author of a biography on Howard Hughes (err, the old-timer in a shrouded Las Vegas hotel Hughes), is enough to make it worthwhile for the whole hour which Welles promises at the start. Then, when Welles brings back a certain femme fatale in the form of his real-life love Oja Kodar, things become further mysterious. For a man whom mystery was the subject he loved most in films aside from Shakespeare, the last ten to fifteen minutes of the film are some of his most ambiguous, seductive, nearly pointless, but oddly cool scenes filmed. Suddenly, after getting inundated with sound-bytes and trickery with the editing style (which ranks with the best Welles and his team), verite camera-work (by a talented Gary Graver), and images that freeze up, zoom in, get inopportune poses from monkeys, and bits and pieces of a French villa and dozens of paintings, things slow down. If for nothing else, F For Fake is a masterpiece of tempo.

That's not to say that some of this will appeal to everyone. It won't. It doesn't have the instant accessible entertainment appeal of a Citizen Kane or intense ambiguity of the Trial. However for a certain viewer, there is a good deal of entertainment value- certain things that are mentioned, or even in just the way it's said by Welles, can be quite funny. Which helps considering the bits that might become top-heavy with Welles's love of quotes and pondering style of narration. It's a blend of character study, history, investigative journalism (both of the human subjects and of the ideas of forgery and painting and what is real in the mid 20th century society), and some fantastic styling. If you are a film student, even if you couldn't give a damn about Elmyr or the Howard Hughes hoax or Welles's own past of hoaxing with theater/radio/cinema, just to see how the film moves at times, how images fold and bend to another, the progression, it's rather exhilarating. And the only special effect is right up the sleeve, so to speak.
L is for Influence5/10
Orson Welles completely changed the face of film with "Citizen Kane."
It was precisely right to spawn the revolution in narrative layering.
For those who don't know, the Kane experiment was initiated not by
Welles but Mankiewicz. But it was Welles who expanded and pulled off
the success of managing so many types of narrative layers. (The number
and type would be later exceeded by "Annie Hall," but no one would
consider it a triggering idea by then.)

I don't think Kane was his best film, but it certainly was his most
influential, and as such it haunted him all his life. Especially
haunting were all the types of layers he discovered after Kane. As he
only had that one shot at greatness, it would have been great if he
could go back and remake it, adding the new ideas.

This project is the next best thing. But to see its beauty, you have to
know two things: first that the layers that Kane is missing and that
many filmmakers used since is the notion of annotative narrative
layers. Second, you should know that several of his "lost" projects
exploit just this notion, especially "Other Side of the Wind."

Here's the setup in this fake documentary about fakery:

You have the layer of Kane, which is based on Hearst. (A story about a

Now Welles adds the (completely bogus) layer that Kane was to be
originally about Howard Hughes, a more intrinsically layered character.
(This remark, incidentally, is what triggered Scorcese's interest.)

Then to Welles' bogus movie about Hughes' life (itself a bogus notion)
he adds another layer: Irving's bogus story about Hughes' life. But he
doesn't stop there. Indeed, he goes further into another layer: an
Irving story (presumably _not_ bogus) about an artist (Elmyr) who
produced bogus artworks, including bogus Picassos.

The first two thirds of the project are concerned with getting all
these plates spinning at the same time. Some very clever editing is
used to merge the layers, even though nearly all the camera-work is

The final third takes all these and weaves another layer that
intersperses. It begins with the image of a lovely woman to whom he
introduced us in the very beginning. It was a seemingly inexplicable
introduction: candid shots of men on the street ogling her vampish

This woman is Oja Kodar (aka Olga Palinkas), Welles' lover, companion
and screen writing collaborator on all his folded projects — all lost
except this one. Around this woman, Welles conflates every layer you
have seen before into a story about her seducing Picasso into painting
22 pictures of her, presumably nude, of which he makes her a gift. She
subsequently sells Picassos which turn out to have been produced by her
grandfather, Elmyr who we saw earlier.

In the earlier shots, we actually see him produce bogus paintings which
are then burned. But in Welles' confabulation, the originals are burned
and the fakes sold.

(You should know that in the lore of folded narrative (which goes
through cabala to Finnigans Wake), there are exactly 22 folds you can
make and no more.)

Things are tied together with Orson admitting to being a fake, and the
story a fake, but perhaps necessary in the name of art?

No one should see "Citizen Kane" without also seeing this annotation.

Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.