“We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.” — Pablo Picasso
The above quote by Pablo Picasso (referenced in F for Fake), could almost be the starting point for Orson Welles’ last properly completed film. At the time of it’s original release in 1975 F for Fake felt like a sad joke or at best a curious footnote to a once glittering career. With the benefit of hindsight it now feels like a director revelling in the magic of cinema and the playfulness, (or trickery) of movie editing. “The Moviola is a musical instrument,” comments Welles in Filming Othello (1978) and this “instrument” is as much the star of F for Fake as Welles himself.
“This is a film about lies,” we hear him narrate at the start of the film. I for one am not exactly sure where the lies start and end or even that it matters. Fact, fiction, archive footage and differing cinematic styles are conjured into a film that seems as much about Welles having fun at our expense as anything else. As the film opens, a caped Welles is seen at his most playful as he performs a series of magic tricks in a railway station. The crew are seen documenting him (or is he documenting them?) before moving into a breathtakingly audacious forty-minute montage of appropriated footage, screen with screens, freeze frames and speed changes. If F for Fake should be should be seen for any singular reason it is this bravura editing style. Welles seems to revel in the freedom of the edit suite (and perhaps the freedom of not working in Hollywood) as he concocts a fantastical story in what at the time must have been a mind blowingly revolutionary style.
American film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum remarked on first seeing F for Fake that “this didn’t look much like a Welles film” – to which film critic Lotte H. Eisner retorted: “It isn’t even a film”. But it is a film, a film quite unlike any other and ironically it may actually be the one film that Welles had total control over. I am not even sure that it is really a documentary, in the conventional sense, but more a personal documentary essay. Almost half of the footage is not even shot by Welles but was acquired from an unfinished film by gallery owner-turned-director Francois Reichenbach, who then appears as himself in footage that Welles shot himself at a later date.
Throughout the film we are led a merry dance through a cast of colourful characters including legendary art forger Elmyr de Hory, Howard Hughes, Pablo Picasso, Flying Saucers (I kid you not) and of course Welles himself. Which part of this film is truth and which is a lie? Is Welles making a fake film about a faker and if so who is the real faker? Perhaps the greatest faker is Welles himself?
If this all sounds confusing it is because F for Fake is a deliberately confusing film but no less delightful in being so. To misquote Peter Bogdanovich: “This is a film you just have to go along with and enjoy the ride.”
If you want a straight narrative then maybe this is not the film for you. If you want to be taken on one of the most original cinematic journeys ever by a master conjurer then give it a try.
You tell me. Am I telling the truth or just another lie?
F for Fake will be re-released in British cinemas from 24 August, check out the BFI website for more information.