F for Fake and Ratatouille are kind of the same movie.
I mean, no, they’re not exactly the same. But they’re both mostly about someone taking credit for another person’s art, with strong critiques of the commercial business of art and a subplot deconstructing the relationship that art critics and other art experts have with artists and their creations. They’re even both directed by highly respected auteurs trying to salvage a project that the original director couldn’t complete. It’s just that one of those auteurs is Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) and the other is Orson Welles (Citizen freaking Kane). The conclusions that both of the films come to are disparate, but contradictory.
First, a bit of plot summary. Ratatouille is a film about a rat that manages to become the head chef at a Parisian restaurant that somehow used to have 5 stars despite the Michelin rating system only going up to three stars. He achieves this by pulling the hair of his hapless human companion, which controls the human like a marionette. It’s my favorite PIXAR film of all time. F for Fake is an Orson Welles mostly-non-fiction film that is about two of the most notorious fakers of the 20th century. The first is Elmyr de Horay, an art forger that specialized in the post-impressionists, particularly Picasso and Modigliani. The second, and more famous of the two, is Elmyr’s biographer Clifford Irving, who also wrote a best-selling, but fake, autobiography of an even more famous man– a business tycoon by the name of Howard Hughes.
The things to unpack in these films are mostly the questions that they raise about the nature of art and art criticism. Kyle Kallgren’s review of F for Fake begins with the question “Is there such a thing as fake art?” I would posit that both films say the answer is “no”, but for different reasons.
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy.”
Despite being compared to a film that literally calls its most prominent critic character “The Grim Eater”, F for Fake has a decidedly more harsh view of the world of art criticism and expertise. Irving recounts a time he went to two art galleries one afternoon with a book of prints. At the first he claimed that the prints were fakes, and the curators and experts agreed with him (“Modigliani would never have drawn that line parallel to that other line in that manner…” etc.). At the second he claimed that the prints were real, and the curators and experts agreed with him (“Of course, it’s a portrait of Madame something-or-other, it’s an important piece of the oeuvre, reproduced everywhere…” etc.). Irving cited this as the moment that he lost faith in any form of art expert. Even Oja Kodar, the uncredited cowriter of the film, quotes Picasso as allegedly saying “The best critical opinion is a load of horse manure.” The prints, by the way, were of several Modiglianis by Elmyr.
Ratatouille is far more kind. Anton Ego, as a representation of art criticism, is initially portrayed as a menacing figure, but quickly warms up to Remy and his particular situation once he grasps it, and Remy’s art is so good that it changes Ego’s perspective on art and the creative process with one meal. That’s not nothing, and it’s made even more powerful by the fact that most of the other experts, from Chef Skinner, to the staff of Gusteau’s, to the health inspector, all reject the idea that a rat can cook. Ego’s point about critics, and about experts by association, is that cathartic as it may be, the true purpose is neither to end a career, nor to imply that their criticism is worth more than any one piece of art, but that it is to help bring new and interesting ideas to the world, regardless of how the world ends up reacting to them. As he puts it “The new needs friends.” Ratatouille says that even if the art is good, that doesn’t mean that everyone will be for it– especially if they disagree with its origin.
And therein lies the next, and greater question: does the origin of the art matter? And is there such a thing a fake art?
“It’s pretty, but is it art?”
So Ratatouille doesn’t really imply that Linguini is the culinary equivalent of an art forger. It’s more framed like Linguini is one of the tools that Remy uses in order to create his art. But the actual situation, from an objective perspective, is that Linguini is taking the credit for the art that Remy is creating. Think Singin’ in the Rain or Cyrano de Bergerac. The premise of the film hinges on the fact that Remy is a rat, but from a purely ideological perspective, Linguini’s name being on Remy’s art is at least 7 different kinds of unethical. Within the film, it also serves as part of Remy’s character arc where he learns to accept himself as what he is. But Ratatouille never implies that what Remy creates and does with food isn’t art. The film is very insistent on the fact that Remy is an artist and deserves to have his art shared with the world– it’s the crux of the plot. The conflict is all of the forces that would prevent a rat from becoming the head chef of a Parisian restaurant.
F for Fake does question whether the fakes that Elmyr paints and the books that Irving writes are real art, mostly from the viewpoint of the world condemning their art as ‘fake art’. Welles eloquently refutes those arguments with a single question: “Is that just a forgery… is it not also a painting?” In one poignant scene, Welles monologues about the cathedral at Chartres, which has no known architect. His point seems to be that once the worlds of Picasso and Modigliani and Elmyr and Irving and Howard Hughes fall away, all that will be left is the art– an “anonymous glory”, as he phrases it. But things have changed a lot since 1973, which was when F for Fake was originally released. Our world is far better documented than it was when the cathedral at Chartres was constructed. Is it possible that “our songs will all be silenced” is no longer a true statement?
“Change is nature… the part that we can influence.”
Ultimately, Ratatouille seems to pick up where F for Fake leaves off. First, it reconstructs the role of the expert. F for Fake leaves the expert well and truly admonished, saying that any person who thinks themself an art expert is not only fooling themselves, but can be easily be fooled by a fake. Ratatouille takes it a step further, and reconstructs the idea– sure, sometimes criticism is badly placed, but there is a benefit to the experts, “and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.” It’s not that you need to be an expert to recognize that something is good, but that experts can use their reputation as experts to shine light on art that may not otherwise be noticed. Welles admits that he manipulated this function of the art expert himself– when he was stranded in Dublin after failing to become a painter, he conned his way onto the stage by saying he was a major theater star in NYC. Not only did he get the role, he was able to garner enough support to get him that famous radio broadcast and enough momentum to get him to Hollywood. As he phrased it: “I started at the top and have been working my way down ever since.”
The question over whether or not there is fake art is rooted in questioning the legitimacy of the art’s source. In F for Fake, Welles doesn’t seem to care whether the painting is a Modigliani by Modigliani or a Modigliani by Elmyr– as long as it’s good art, it will stick around for as long as it can. As Kallgren puts it: “We’ll always have Xanadu, so who cares about Rosebud?” Welles was talking about death and the eventual existential crisis of the species, but Ratatouille takes the silencing in a more immediate sense. Ratatouille rightfully makes the observations that there are artists from backgrounds that are actively discouraged from creating art, either from their community or because they belong to that community. Ratatouille reaffirms Welles’ statement in the immediate sense, because if the artist keeps on creating, eventually their voice will be heard.
To finish a quote from earlier: “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.”
What do you think ‘fake’ art should be defined as? Do you have any other PIXAR/art film pairings you think I should look at? Let me know in the comments. Also, like if you can, and subscribe– or follow us on Facebook!— so you don’t miss any new content.