A young child goes missing. This is a headline that has appeared all too often in recent times and rarely with a happy ending. Cinema goers might have such a caveat in mind when they sit down to watch Bart Layton’s The Imposter. The film documents the true story of serial confidence trickster Frédéric “The Chameleon” Bourdin’s most famous impersonation – that of the missing thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay. The film opens with a genuine call that Bourdin made to the Spanish police in 1997 claiming to be a tourist who had just found a young boy in a phone booth. When the police arrive, Bourdin imitates the traumatised youth, acting in a withdrawn and vulnerable manner. He is taken to a children’s home where he steals information and somehow manages to impersonate Barclay, spinning a preposterous story about escaping from a child sex ring. Bourdin then takes his place within Barclay’s family.
The Imposter contains dramatisations of events interspersed with interviews and video recordings from family members, FBI investigators and a disturbingly eager Bourdin, all of which give insight into the thoughts and feelings of those involved in the affair. Bourdin’s actions are nothing less than immoral, even if his motives seem “sincere”. He smiles and laughs, recalling how he wheedled his way into the family; yet Bourdin demands sympathy as he offers the viewer explanations for his actions. The most disturbing feature of the film is Bourdin’s ability to disarm the viewer with startling personality shifts.
It is not possible to take anything Bourdin says at face value. Similarly, accounts from other sources [family, police etc] aren’t always reliable either. Nicholas’ mother and sister overlook any oddities in their returned son’s looks and behaviour. While this can be put down to their desperation to have Barclay back in their lives, the film suggests that their attempts might conceivably be the result of trying to cover up sinister acts the family may themselves have perpetrated relating to Nicholas’ disappearance. It is certainly hard to believe that an entire family would willingly accept a twenty-three year old man with brown eyes and a French accent as their blue-eyed sixteen-year-old Texan boy without some doubts being raised.
The haunting intensity of the film is strengthened by its documentary style: the agonising recollections are all the more potent as they come from firs- hand accounts rather than having actors relay the story. However, unlike many documentary films, The Imposter refuses to offer truths, implying that manipulation lies at the heart of this tragic story and in the creation of a thought-provoking film. Many critics feel cheated by this inversion; yet the film is not about establishing facts, but about experiencing the affair’s turmoil and deception.
The documentary impresses and disturbs in equal measure. Bourdin can seemingly talk his way through national security without hindrance, highlighting the dangers posed by anyone with enough self-assurance and nothing to lose. The film seems to lay the culpability for the deception at the family’s door, rather than Bourdin’s.Taking in a complete stranger who does not look or act like your son because you are desperate to have him back might earn you sympathy, but it is also bizarre and inexplicable behaviour at the same time. The film seems to question just how far is the human mind ready to travel to achieve happiness. The Imposter might just be one of the most disconcerting and emotive films of the year.