The Imposter: just who is fooling who?

Bart Layton’s film about serial liar Frédéric Bourdin thrillingly asks questions about deception and self-deception.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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Bart Layton’s The Imposter documents a true story which is – for want of another, less tired cliché – stranger than fiction.

Frédéric Bourdin spent much of his late teens and early twenties impersonating orphaned children. Having run away from an abusive family at the age of 16, he travelled across Western Europe assuming a number of different identities, in the hopes of finding his way into foster care. Over the course of his exploits, he developed unmatched skills of manipulation, earning him the nickname ‘The Chameleon’ from the authorities in his native France. In 1997, Bourdin stumbled into what would be a career-defining scheme, when he assumed the identity of Nicholas Barclay, a 14-year-old boy who had disappeared from San Antonio, Texas three years prior. Brought ‘home’ to America by Nicholas’ older sister, Bourdin continued the charade for three-and-a-half months before confessing to the police. With an eye for drama as well as an attentiveness to the deeper questions surrounding the events that followed, Layton’s film seeks to explore why Baurdin did what he did, and why the Barclay family, as well as the FBI, so happily welcomed this obvious imposter back with open arms.

Like heist-movie-come-documentary Man on Wire, with which this film shares its producer, The Imposter introduces a narrative framing in a way that enhances rather than cheapens the documentation. Gritty, saturated sequences illustrate the yarns spun by the interviewees, who, incidentally, speak entirely in the present tense for much of the film, giving the film a truly nail-biting intensity deserving of the story’s extraordinary twists and turns. However, while Barton takes a certain amount of dramatic licence, The Imposter never feels wholly manipulative.

Much of this is the product of its admirable even-handedness. The Imposter is one of the few documentaries about a despicable crime that achieved the co-operation of its perpetrator. As such, where we would expect to see Bourdin in a few photographs, reducing him to a mere mask of evil, he is allowed to explain himself and his bizarre, but nevertheless fascinating, motivations. With a surprising candour he tells of his troubled childhood: borne by a young, abusive mother and raised by a racist extended family who despised him for the Arab genes he inherited from his womanising, absentee father. He claims that over the course of his travels, he never once stole money or even hopped a train, and that all he ever wanted was to live the childhood he felt he had been denied.

At times you even find yourself sympathising or even rooting for the man. But far from giving him a chance to play the victim, Barton only seeks to offer his side of the story while giving us a taste of the enormous skill Bourdin possesses. Placed in the centre of the frame, in close-up, staring down the camera’s eye, we too are subjected to Bourdin’s charm offensive, bringing the audience closer to understanding how he managed to convince even Nicholas Barclay’s own mother that he was her missing child.

Yet, while Barton is careful to remind us that, as a habitual liar, Bourdin’s contributions are to be taken with a colossal pinch of salt, they do lead the film to pose some interesting questions. Far from bragging about his feat, the dark-haired, brown-eyed Frenchmen expresses his continuing amazement that he was able to pass himself off as a blond-haired, blue-eyed American teenager who was six years his junior. This leads him to the conclusion that the Barclays knew he wasn’t Nicholas all along, and the final few minutes of the film turn to explore the reasons why the family were seemingly so compliant in Bourdin’s scheme.

Proceedings draw to a close with all the heart-pounding panache of a thriller, but it remains a valuable portrait of human nature at its most warped and forlorn. With the story of Bourdin and the Barclay family, we are granted an incredible insight into manipulation, delusion and self-delusion, and the extreme lengths some will go to make their lives feel complete.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for The Imposter here:

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