The Imposter (2012)
October 5, 2012 5 Comments
Texas, 1994; blonde-haired, blue-eyed Nicholas Barclay is told by his brother to walk home one night so as not to wake their mother, who works nights. He is never seen or heard from again. Spain, 1997; a boy claiming to be the missing Texan is found alone in a phone box by the side of the road, where he tells authorities that he has just escaped from his abusive captors. As the boy’s family welcome him home with open arms, sceptics Nancy Fisher, an FBI agent, and Charlie Parker, a private investigator, dig deeper into the initial disappearance to discover that Nicholas — who is now brown-eyed, darked-haired and speaks with a French accent — is in fact someone else entirely.
Director Bart Layton isn’t shy about giving away the identity of his eponymous imposter; Frédéric Bourdin is introduced right from the off as he attempts to apply some semblance of logic to his unbelievable actions. Bourdin is a curious figure, friendly enough to begin with but with an edge that becomes more and more insidious as the documentary goes on. What is most striking is the audacity of his plan: he doesn’t look or sound like Nicholas, due to his French-Albanian heritage, and has little understanding of American life beyond what he has seen in movies. In 1997, when Nicholas should have been sixteen years old and relieved to be home, Frédéric was pushing twenty-four and hid behind a pair of sunglasses and a scarf. Incredibly, none of this seemed to matter and he was accepted back into the family as if nothing had happened.
Bourdin makes for a compelling case study, and Layton rightly puts him front and centre for most of the film. His practised charms and expert cunning make for a character who is by turns amiable, fascinating and downright disturbing, his initial account seeming surprisingly honest before later developments reveal him to be somewhat of a monster. Such a term is much too evocative for The Imposter, however, and it is this stark, dispassionate description of events that separates it most from Clint Eastwood’s fraught and (in part at least) fabricated Changeling. Even the family, comprised of Nicholas’ sister, brother and mother, seem oddly detached from Bourdin’s deception. Not only did they accept him into their lives, but they duly follow the thriller-esque structure with a resigned, uneasy calm.
While the identity of the imposter might be given away early on, there is still much mystery to fuel Layton’s documentary, not least the ease and unquestioning abandon with which he entered the United States and appeared to fool his namesake’s family. Beyond the sheer incredibility of the real-life story at its centre, Layton’s expert use of the documentary format further ensures that you are never less than 100% invested in what is unfolding onscreen. Comprising archive footage, exclusive interviews and various re-enactments, he not only pieces together a story that happened over a decade ago but does so in the most enthralling way possible. The most effective scenes involve various elements working in tandem, as both Bourdin and the actor playing him speak in unison. It’s enough to send a chill down your spine.
Having missed The Imposter when it played at the Edinburgh International Film Festival earlier this year (I got to see the likes of Eddie – The Sleepwalking Cannibal instead), I’ve spent the months since listening to everyone harp on about how amazing it is. Precautions after being let down after the similarly hyped Berberian Sound Studio, I was almost certain that the documentary would fail to live up to expectations. Not so. If anything, The Imposter is even more incredible, even more astonishing and even more fascinating than anyone has so far given it credit for.