In a different world, The Imposter could be a superhero summer blockbuster. Our caped and masked avengers fight for truth and justice, and, less nebulously, for revenge. They are cruelly orphaned by fate, but through some kind of magic, a shift or tear in the fabric and logic of reality, they are given the opportunity to sublimate their tragic flaws. We recognize this as sorcery, the bending of rules to serve the narrative, yet one of our most persistent and indulgent fantasies, shared by everyone from Comic-Con fanboys to Oprah devotees, is that your wound can become your superpower. What to make then of The Imposter, British director Bart Layton’s complex documentary? The star of this film, master impersonator “La Chameleon,” née Frédéric Bourdin, makes an interesting case for exactly the opposite: that your wound can be the core of your darkest yearning. A Frenchman of Algerian descent and an unwanted bastard child, Bourdin is notorious for repeatedly posing as a teenager and living under fake identities in various homes and institutions throughout Europe. His most incredible hoax is that he assumed the identity of a missing teenage boy from Texas named Nicholas Barclay. More incredible still? That the Barclay family welcomed this fake Nicholas with open arms. Since unfolding in the late 1990s, this story has been hashed and rehashed (Bourdin even scored a high-brow New Yorker profile), and Layton meets this challenge by subverting the form. Less investigatory documentary than stylish meta-noir, The Imposter asks surprisingly deep questions about the truth of identity and the fictions that help us survive.
Layton began the process of making the The Imposter by interviewing Frédéric Bourdin, and these extensive interviews form the spine of the film. Bourdin’s oft-noted charm and intelligence are on display, but I found him more slick than charismatic. His justifications for his crimes — his lonely, difficult childhood, the craving for a sense of belonging — are ticked off with ease, as if they’re simply another story he has told others and himself enough times that he now believes it. The gleam in Bourdin’s eye reveals the grifter’s truth: there’s joy in the hustle. A good con takes skill, and it’s understandable to take pride in that, even if the means are selfish and the end harmful. In contrast, Layton at first allows the Barclays to come across as dumbly innocent. They are that staple of global derision, the Borat target: the heartland American naïf, no match for the sophistication of the Continental imagination. It’s the old refrain, that somehow our addiction to America’s glory blinds us to common sense. That, and the fact that we’ve never crossed the border. Bourdin’s grasp of English is shaky at best — how could these people believe he was one of them? Bourdin managed to deceive a list of officials from the embassy to the FBI, but it was the Barclays who gave his story legitimacy. Upon hearing of Nicholas’ reapparance in Linares, Spain, his sister Carey Barclay flew over to claim him. When she laid eyes on Bourdin she embraced him without doubt.
If Bourdin plays a starring role, The Imposter has no real narrator. This is intentional, a formal choice that mirrors Layton’s unwillingness to impose his version of the truth on the stories told by his subjects. He makes use of archival footage and photographs, but for the most part Layton boldly illustrates much of the retelling with vivid recreations of the events. His actors don’t speak, only occasionally lipsynching the words of that scene’s narrator. Working with cinematographer Erik Wilson (Submarine, Tyrannosaur) on the Arri Alexa, Layton employs shadow and high-contrast to contribute to the vague, suspenseful nature of events. As Layton puts it, uncovering this story was “a journey upon which we lurched from one version of the truth to another, from sympathy to condemnation and back again.” The visual style of the film nicely complements that process, and never more so than when the film makes a late-act shift. The exposure of Bourdin’s deceit is as inevitable in fact as it is surprising in execution.
Layton has a gift in his real-world “cast,” from Bourdin to the Barclays to the colorful secondary characters. Bourdin attributed much of the changes in “Nicholas” (including his pretty ludicrous French accent) to an extensive litany of abuse perpetrated by his kidnappers, a shadowy underground organization with military ties. The FBI investigator handling his case begins to have doubts around the same time that a local private investigator named Charlie Parker becomes wise to the game. There is suspense in the pursuit, and in Bourdin’s increasing nerves, but the real wrenching twist comes when the Barclays are confronted with their own complicity. The question becomes not how they could believe Bourdin was Nicholas, but why. Nicholas’ mother Beverly Dollarhide, with her gravelly voice and struggles with drug addiction, made a rather perfect victim until this point, her misjudgment a believable lapse. And here’s where our — and Bourdin’s — rather smug preconceptions are cleverly exposed. I won’t say much more, but if Parker’s suspicions fail to unearth much proof, something sinister and foreboding rises to the surface that can’t be submerged again. The crimes of the imprisoned Bourdin seem diminished, perversely innocent. All he wanted was to be someone else, an American dream if ever there was one. The grainy footage of his Michael Jackson impersonation could be a primitive audition tape for American Idol. But that kind of pop fabrication of America conceals our dual nature: twinned to freedom and opportunity is a Gothic heart of darkness. In a modern way, The Imposter asks the old question: better the devil you know than the devil you don’t?