by Allan Fish
(France 1973 85m) DVD1/2
Aka. Vérités et mensonges
Watch out for the slightest hint of hanky panky
p François Reichenbach, Dominique Antoine d/w Orson Welles ph Gary Graver, Christian Odasso ed Marie-Sophie Dubus, Dominique Engerer m Michel Legrand
Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, Laurence Harvey, Joseph Cotten, Paul Stewart, Richard Wilson, Clifford Irving, Elmyr de Hory,
It’s now forty years since Welles’ final cinematic sleight of hand was released. It would be his last original feature, only behind the scenes documentaries on the making of Othello and The Trial would follow. Yet to use the term original may be somewhat misleading, for F for Fake exists somewhere between the real and the fraudulent, between fiction, documentary, mockumentary and even cine-essay. It even exists loosely in time, shot on one of several sabbaticals while filming was halted on his unfinished The Other Side of the Wind. And it is the greatest hors d’oeuvre ever made for a main course that never arrived, a side order to Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
It centres around two fakes; the first, Elmyr de Hory, the celebrated art forger. The second, Clifford Irving, wrote a book about de Hory, before writing a fictionalised supposed authorised biopic of Howard Hughes. Both are fakers. Both tried and failed to make a career honestly, but in the case of de Hory, he muddied the waters between who the real fakers are; the painters who make copies of masterpieces or the experts shown up as frauds when continually unable to tell the difference between an original and a forgery.
On one level Welles is winking an aside at modern art and its reputation among the masses as the Emperor’s New Canvas. Yet at the centre is an argument which could be transferred to the critics who act as arbiters of taste with regard to film. Get enough critics to call an actor or director a genius and the world will believe it, or worse still, say a master isn’t a master. Flip that coin over and one then has to consider Welles’ own reputation as a joker, a magician. After performing a trick for some small boys on a railway platform, he’s smiled at by a woman in a railway carriage; “up to your old tricks, I see.” He smirks back, “why not, I’m a charlatan.”
So on one hand we have a playful analysis on the essence of forgery, taking de Hory and Irving as his subjects. On another, it’s a shattering of the fourth wall between himself and his audience, not just on this film but on others (a clip of Laurence Harvey is seen from time off from shooting another abandoned opus, The Deep). Yet he’s not beyond faking his own originals. How to do a film about fakery and hoaxes and not discuss his own infamous radio calling card, that War of the Worlds broadcast. He does so, but it’s not the original broadcast we hear snippets of but freshly recorded material.
For the final act he provides a shaggy dog story to end them all, about another Hungarian forger meeting Pablo Picasso and Oja Kodar, Welles’ muse of the time. We take it with a pinch of salt, but we don’t care whether it’s real or not when the story itself is entrancing. And in a film that is, in the end, all about diversion, he gives us the sport of girl-watching, sits in a Parisian café where Cocteau, Bérard and Vertes once met, goes off on a tangent at Chartres cathedral and comments about his own failures and troughs. He admits to his own fakery in what amounts to a hymn to those who falsify their CVs. Yet it’s also a tale with a great deal of regret, for the lost films that didn’t get made, for an Ibiza long since buried under countless paralytic British partygoers who turned it into a 24/7 Pleasure Island. By the time it came out both Picasso and Laurence Harvey were dead, while Elmyr de Hory would soon follow, and the fact that it would be his final major statement can only make one wonder what Welles would have thought of that. There would have been disappointment, for sure, but also a semi-wistful nod and an acceptance that he could have given no finer epitaph than this prism-like illusion of a movie, a final diamond from a master. Just don’t ask if it’s genuine.