If you tried selling the story of The Imposter as a drama, people would never go for it.
It’s just too unbelievable. I mean, the idea of this guy, this 23-year-old, selling himself as a missing child and somehow not just fooling the authorities but the family that he infiltrated is simply laughable. In real life, people simply aren’t that gullible.
Bart Layton’s documentary with dramatic interludes, based on the 1997 story of Frédéric Bourdin’s impersonation of Texan teenager Nicholas Barclay, does a very good job of exploring the boundaries between the truth and how it can be twisted, confused and reinterpreted. The pivotal moment of the story–Bourdin’s discovery in a phone booth in Spain, and his claim to be a vanished schoolkid from America–is rewound and replayed several times, revealing new bits of the story every time.
Our view of the Barclay family shifts through the film, darkening as the story twists and wraps around itself. Initially they are noble victims, then gullible dupes, then as manipulative as Bourdin himself. How complicit are they in the disappearance of the boy? Are they gullible, or is there more to the tale? If you want a definitive answer as to what has happened to Nicholas Barclay, then tough. That’s why The Imposter would never work as a drama. There’s no closure, no villain is brought to justice.
At the centre of the story, of course, there is Frédéric Bourdin, breaking the fourth wall with every sideways look at the camera, with every snide little comment. How much veracity can you take from a man who has spent his life lying to everyone? How can you believe a word he says? Layton builds up the sense of distrust with every cutaway. It’s manipulative, certainly. But it adds another layer of fog to the story, another sense that everyone in front of the camera has something to hide. And every time you think you’ve found a crack in Bourdin’s armour, that he’s about to make a confession, then Layton cuts in a shrug, a look, that devilish twinkle. At the end of the film you know less about Bourdin then when you started.
The Imposter is a conundrum inside a question inside a riddle. It’s a puzzle-box without a key or a solution, and certainly without a Hollywood ending where everything is tied up in a neat little bow. I can imagine that for a lot of viewers, the flood of unanswered questions ending the film would be incredibly frustrating. As someone that runs a blog called Excuses And Half Truths, I thoroughly enjoyed the ambiguity and unsettling atmosphere that Bart Layton encourages. Sometimes, you need to leave a film needing to know more.
If that’s the case, then allow me to point you at the 2008 New Yorker article that brought Bourdin firmly into the public eye.
And while we’re at it, check out his antics following the release of the film in this Vice interview. The story of The Imposter continues, like the man himself, to mutate and refuse to be pigeon-holed.