The Imposter, a riveting, white-knuckle documentary-thriller from Bart Layton, tells the confounding story of Frédéric Bourdin, a Frenchman, born in 1974, who spent his childhood and early adult life in a state of complete anonymity, preferring to impersonate the identities of others rather than build one of his own. If you’ve heard of Bourdin before — which, before seeing the film, I hadn’t — it’s probably been in relation to the Nicholas Barclay debacle of the mid-1990s, and it is indeed that deliciously deadly story that The Imposter takes as its central narrative.
Barclay, a blue-eyed, blond-haired kid from Texas, went missing in 1994 at the age of 13, and for the following couple of years, the Barclay family, whom we get to know quite extensively, lived in absolute limbo, not knowing if the young, rebellious Nicholas was alive or dead. Things changed drastically, however, in 1997, when they got a phone call claiming that Nicholas had been found in Spain. Nicholas’s sister then flies down to Spain as quickly as she can, and when she arrives back in Texas with her brother, her family accepts him as their long-lost joy.
The boy — or, rather, the man, since he was in his 20s at the time — that accompanies Nicholas’s sister back home is, of course, Bourdin, and not the actual Nicholas. Looking for a way to access a more comfortable lifestyle, Bourdin, while under police watch, had stumbled across Nicholas’s file, and the fact that he looked nothing like the kid from Texas — Bourdin is dark-haired, dark-eyed, and speaks with a heavy, non-American accent — didn’t stop him from challenging himself to alter his appearance. Dying his hair yellow and sporting a pair of sunglasses — in addition to getting the handful of tattoos Nicholas had at the time he went missing — Bourdin was preposterously able to convince the authorities, and the Barclay family, that he was the same exact kid from the missing-persons file.
This is merely the set-up of the film, and it is laid out, via testimony from the Barclay family as well as Bourdin himsef, efficiently and economically. Where the story goes from there, however, is completely surprising and transfixing, and if your memory of the real-life case is hazy in any way, I’d recommend not refreshing yourself before seeing the film. It’s such an instantly memorable narrative that The Imposter eventually becomes a hybrid piece of storytelling, as much a mystery-thriller as it is a truth-seeking documentary. (That a good deal of the resolution is left open-ended only seems to add to the former quality.)
Much of the film’s primal instinct, too, stems from Layton’s filmmaking, which isn’t stylistically shy in the slightest. While Bourdin and company narrate, Layton often opts for unsettlingly polished visualizations that recall the late-night recreations of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line. The acute cinematography, from Erik Alexander Wilson and Lynda Hall, plays like something out of a film noir, smothering the flashback scenes in overwhelming darkness. That Bourdin’s younger self is kept in the shadows during these flashbacks is partly due to the man’s own identity crisis, but it also imbues the surrounding film with a pitch-black misery.
As atmospherically confident as Layton’s direction is, however, perhaps even more crucial to the film’s power — and the thing that makes it absolutely sickening and borderline brilliant — is the decision to embrace Bourdin’s demented personality. This is a humorous, entertaining man, and the film takes that cue and runs with it, having as much unhinged fun with Bourdin’s obsessive impersonations as he does. When he stares into the camera with his disturbing, gap-toothed smile, it’s hard not to smile right back at him.
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