F is for Fake is not a film for beginners. It’s an Orson Welles’ masterpiece, for sure, but of a very different flavor than his classic magnum opus, Citizen Kane. The film is described as a both a “documentary” and a “film essay,” but neither of these categories can hold it. It’s a compelling and complicated tale of trickery, a historical document, a fascinating study in self-reflexive film making and editing, and a stand-alone work of art.
It opens in a train station. Welles’ performs magic tricks. He invites the audience into a film “about lies” before he throws us into a sequence starring Oja Kodar, his super-hot, real-life female companion, as she struts through the streets meeting male onlookers. This strange, quick-paced opener sets us up for an even more bizarre plunge into the heart of the story which involves infamous art forger Elmyr de Hory, and biographer Clifford Irving, who became known as great con artist in his own right when he faked a biography of legendary billionaire Howard Hughes.
This flamboyant and international cast of characters: Welles, de Hory, Irving, Hughes, Oja Kodar (and even Picasso!) become further entangled in the narrative as it continues and the locations change; the film follows plot lines taking us through Ibiza, Paris, Las Vegas, and Houdan among others.
The film is also exquisitely self-referential, it draws us, again and again, into the editing room. We see the camera man and cinematographer, François Reichenbach, on screen and behind the camera. We hear about the making of the film, in the film, and we are given notice of where and why certain footage was taken.
F is for Fake is like an unsolvable puzzle. We are presented with subjects and works that could (and do) have volumes of historical research dedicated to them, and although the film delves into the lives of its on-screen personalities, it is not really about any of them. It’s a fascinating look into the mind of Orson Welles and the portraits he creates of himself and others, but it remains a film about lies, deception, and “truth” in art and cinema.
Those who will be especially interested in this film are Orson Welles fans, those interested in the discourse surrounding “the fake”, and those interested in the film as a historical document of its subjects and cast.