F for Fake holds the somewhat dubious distinction of being the last completed project directed by Orson Welles. In fact, the project was stimulated as a response to a debt the renowned film director owed to the Internet Revenue Service and much of the footage was already existing documentary film shot for a BBC broadcast about art forger Elmyr de Hory. The concept of the art forger led Welles to refashion the existing footage around a conceptual idea of fakery in general.
That fakery extended not just to art forgery, but also to the infamous Clifford Irving and his fake autobiography of billionaire Howard Hughes. Layered over this would be instances and demonstrations of Welles’s own career as a magician. Layered over the fakery which gives the unusual film its title is a subtext that questions the character of criticism and the ability of professional authenticators to determine the value of a work of art based primarily on documentation of its originality. Beneath this layer is yet another bit of subtext at work: what makes a work of art worthwhile. Is it the art itself or is it the viability of the authenticity of the work. Is the painting really what gives a piece of art value or merely the signature? And if it is merely the signature, then what exactly constitutes the value of the subject?
As if all that weren’t enough to build a fascinating film around, F for Fake takes a weird left turn at one point to become a more traditional piece of investigative documentary concerning itself with 22 paintings of a former Welles collaborator named Oja Kodar created by Pablo Picasso. This story spirals into a tale of Picasso denouncing the paintings as forgeries and the revelation of the forgeries as a complex attempt to create an entirely new phase of Picasso’s career. Eventually, Welles admits that this entire part of the narrative has been a carefully constructed bit of fiction intended to trick the viewer.
Needless to say, the entire point of F for Fake is to divulge the extent to which nothing in the world of entertainment or art can ever be taken completely at face value.