F for Fake is a half-brilliant half-mess, and fully infuriating-to-parse film that. It is part documentuary, part-noir, part self-indulgent masturbation (as opposed to…charitable masturbation?), it is a film essay that runs excitedly through different story lines, ideas, and film genres.
The film is an examination of deception, of what we count as authentic and why. The documentary angle follows Elmyr de Hory, an art forger. While showing him at various parties, it follows his tale of how he came to art forgery, the brilliance of forgery, and how much his work as a forger was enhanced by more greedy art dealers. If there wasn’t a market for art, there wouldn’t be forgery. Underlying this is a clever complication (or mocking) of why we are so focused on authenticity.
Complicating this story line–for nothing is simple in this film–is de Hory’s biographer, Clifford Irving, who is most famous for fabricating a biography of Howard Hughes. How much of the legend of de Hory’s success as a forger is a hoax upon a hoax? de Hory’s is creating his own myth for his benefit, but is Irving furthering that myth to benefit himself? Circling back to the question of authenticity to art, how much of an artist’s success is based on the creation of legend around him?
Welles promises to tell nothing but the truth for an hour of his hour and 20-minute film, and the last twenty minutes sidelines into a strange little story, featuring Welles’ rather attractive girlfriend, supposedly posing for Picasso, taking the portraits, and then selling other counterfeit Picassos. It is indicative of a film that is deliberately abstruse and gleefully labyrinthine, manic.
So much of art, in any form, is inauthentic by the very nature of its obsession for authenticity. Even contemporary art, in which authenticity matters much less, is a deception–an artist attempting to play the role of the authentic artist. Those who are most successful at this deception are also the most successful artists. But then, this is true of any of us–those of us who most cleverly choose the juiciest roles and play them most convincingly are the ones we deem successful. Authenticity is a slippery thing to grab hold of–almost quantum in its super-imposed state–and when we try to anchor it to us, to possess it and observe it is when it is furthest from us. It is a state, that if we value, we only see out of the corners of our eyes.
If you’re a fan of Welles and his career-long obsession with the authenticity of art and the magic of deception (along with his literally quixotic career as an artist), this is a great film. If you’re a film buff interested in film theory, this is the film for you. If you’re looking for something that isn’t confusing, problematic, and somewhat half-assed, I’d probably skip it. To even get a weak handle on it, I had to watch in 20-minute stretches, and a second showing would probably serve me well.