Blending real-life testimony and dramatic re-enactments, Bart Layton’s docu-thriller revisits a 1997 US tabloid scandal that even Jeremy Kyle would have a hard time swallowing: how Frédéric Bourdin, a swarthy, 23 year-old Frenchman, conned a Texan family into believing he was their missing teenage son. Or did he?
The truth is stranger than fiction: an overused cliché that would nonetheless apply to Bart Layton’s daring, funny and deeply disquieting documentary... if we only knew exactly which truth we are looking at. Emphatically proving that both sides of the story don’t necessarily make up a whole, The Imposter consults all involved parties to construct a richly ambiguous study of epic identity theft in which what happened is of less interest than what people let themselves believe.
Frédéric Bourdin, a charismatic charlatan happy to relate his version of events direct to the camera, had posed as many a missing person before winding up in a Spanish orphanage, where he randomly happened upon the file of Nicholas Barclay — a 13 year-old Texan boy who had disappeared from his rural hometown three years previously. Despite never having been across the pond, and bearing not the faintest resemblance to the blue-eyed, blond-haired kid, Bourdin informed authorities that he was indeed Barclay, fabricating a preposterous backstory of kidnapping and sex slavery at the hands of the US military. Incredibly, they bought it. Even more incredibly, so did the Barclay family, who welcomed him home with open arms, overlooking his funny new accent and unlikely five o’clock shadow.
Had the desire for closure simply pushed the Barclays into a state of extreme denial? Or was Bourdin’s appearance merely a convenient cover-up for some skeletons in the family closet? Layton approaches this potentially lurid mystery with all the cool, stealthy grace of a Patricia Highsmith novel, as Bourdin’s Tom Ripley figure alternates between the positions of predator, victim and fall guy, depending on who’s speaking.
Using extensive, sleekly filmed re-enactments of the events alongside the talking heads of Bourdin, the Barclays and assorted incredulous investigators, The Imposter brazenly invites protest from documentary purists, but manipulation of the truth is rather the point here. Layton’s ingenious juggling of conflicting perspectives aims to suggest how even the most tenuous of fictions can be embroidered into something else. Meanwhile, its avoidance of conventional vérité techniques underlines that no-one in this story, least of all the filmmaker, has an authority on the truth.
The year’s most fascinating and frightening doc so far, The Imposter delves far beneath the hysterical tabloid headlines.