Art is a lie; a lie that makes us able to see the truth.
The final film completed by the great Orson Welles is a monument to his genius and his excess; in all Welles films I can see greatness behind the frames and also sense something lacking. And yet, even at his worst, Welles managed to make films that were intensely unique. Citizen Kane may not be the best film of all time, but there’s certainly not another quite like it. The same could be said for any number of others; as Gary Graver once stated when asked why he wanted to work for Welles, “I think there should be more Orson Welles films.” Amen, Gary, yea and amen.
To describe this film is impossible, but let’s take shot. Francois Reichenbach filmed a documentary about Elmyr de Hory, a man who claimed to have made his living by art forgery. He brought the film to Welles, hoping Welles would narrate it. With his usual panache, Welles asked if he couldn’t re-edit it and share credit. Reichenbach was thrilled; he was French, remember?
As Welles began to edit it, the consummate irony arrived; Reichenbach had been inspired to make the film after reading a book about De Hory, a book called Fake, a book by Clifford Irving who Reichenbach had interviewed extensively for the film. And then suddenly Clifford Irving’s heralded biography of Howard Hughes was revealed to be almost entirely fabricated and it became common knowledge that Irving himself was a forger, a fake, a conman, a liar. And Welles was off and running with a film that is moving, artistic, hilarious, ironic, witty, profound and absolutely unlike anything seen before or since.
Welles himself called it a film essay and that fits as well as any description could. It muses on the nature of truth and art and how the two relate. Welles focuses on de Hory briefly, skips to Clifford Irving, jumps from him to Howard Hughes, from Hughes to Welles’ own early career (what was War of the Worlds, after all, but a masterful forgery?) and from there to a hilarious interlude involving Oja Kador, Welles’ companion at the time, and a series of forged Picasso paintings.
In between, we muse on the nature of criticism, the nature of reality, the nature of perception, the nature of anonymity and everything else relating to art and truth. If this sounds like a head spinning film, it is. The editing style is frenzied; Graver remarks that the cuts were so fast that some cuts did not have negative numbers. The final joke: Orson Welles invented MTV. He’d love that, I think. I know I do.
There are moments of pure transcendence scattered throughout this baffling film. The movie opens appropriately with Welles showing off magic tricks to a befuddled youngster; he spends the rest of the film doing the same to us. A sequence musing on Welles’ early career is entertaining, hilarious and, almost unheard of for Welles, self-deprecating; “I started at the top and have been working my way down ever since,” he says ruefully and he can’t help but laugh. It’s a great laugh line, but it’s also the closest anyone has ever come to really summing Welles up. There’s a moment of raw poetry as Welles muses on the Chartres Cathedral, the pinnacle, in his mind, of human achievement, a work left . . . unsigned, with no name to give it definition.
And the last fifteen minutes are pure theater as Welles and Kador act out a confrontation between an angry and confused Picasso and a desperate, dying forger who seeks validation; it’s the consummate artistry and Welles’ performance, as the forger, is stunning.
Somewhere between the cuts, we see what Welles is driving at. Who was Howard Hughes really? Isn’t forgery in itself an art? Who really made this film, Welles, Reichenbach, de Hory or Irving? And aren’t they all, each and every one of them, firmly established liars? How can any art ever be ‘real?’ How can we ever know anything is ‘real?’ Welles, of course, provides no answers; Welles, as you can see from The Lady in Shanghai, for God’s sake, wasn’t interested in having things make sense. But still, this film, where Welles fully embraces the fragility of reality and art and wrestles with all the themes that he flirted with throughout his career is his final joke. You see, he’s finally definitely topped even Kane; he worked his way down for decades and then his last film . . . was and is his very best. Talk about a rabbit out of a hat.
5 out of 5 stars.