Director Bart Layton has produced and directed many episodes of the sensational(ist) TV show “Locked Up Abroad,” experience which no doubt prepared him well for executing THE IMPOSTER, a flawless documentary full of mistaken identities and international intrigue. What it couldn’t have prepared him, or anyone else, for is the powerfully bizarre tale he recounts, through interviews and expertly deployed re-enactments, of a grown man who successfully impersonated a missing teenager. At first, the story sounds weird, but plausible; it crosses into archetypally strange territory when the impersonator is confronted with the missing boy’s family…and they accept him. Never has truth been so vastly stranger than fiction.
THE IMPOSTER is the story of serial impersonator Frédéric Bourdin, a half-French, half-Algerian man born out of wedlock to a teenage mother, whose family shunned her for having gotten pregnant by an African. First reported by the excellent David Grann in the New Yorker, Bourdin’s story has already been committed to film once before, in the poorly received THE CHAMELEON, a fictionalized account of Bourdin’s story (on which he served as a consultant) written and directed by Jean-Paul Salomé. THE IMPOSTER, wisely, gives the audience all the facts from the very beginning, correctly assuming that the sheer weirdness of the story will be enough to keep everyone interested. Boy, is it ever.
Bourdin decided to impersonate a missing Texas teenager, Nicolas Barclay, while living in a group home for orphaned kids in Spain in 1997. He had gotten himself into this home under the pretense of being a teenager himself, though he was actually 23 at the time (nearly a decade later in France, Bourdin successfully passed himself off as a 15-year old when he was actually 31). Craving the closeness and camaraderie of the group home as opposed to his usual aimless drifting, Bourdin was willing to do whatever it took not to blow his cover. Through incredible cunning he was able to uncover the story of Nicolas, who had been missing for three years already, and claim his identity. When authorities couldn’t immediately debunk Bourdin’s claims, they called Barclay’s sister to Spain (her first time on a plane) to test the mysterious teenager’s claims.
Unbelievably, Nicolas’s sister Carey verified Bourdin’s story, and told police, Interpol, and the FBI that this scruffy young man—whose eyes were a different color than her brother’s, and who could not speak English without a heavy French accent—was indeed her long-lost sibling. After being taken back to the family home in rural Texas, incredibly, it is Bourdin who starts to get creeped out—he becomes convinced that Nicolas’s older brother, who died a short time later of a drug overdose, had murdered Nicolas and that their mother had helped cover up the crime. When he’s finally busted, Bourdin is actually thankful to be locked, safely, in a jail cell.
Bourdin, whose interview footage is used throughout the film, is the strangest criminal presence I’ve ever seen. He’s incredibly perceptive about his own motivations and those of everyone around him, and can elucidate the emotional impetus behind his every action with ease. However, there’s something missing in him—empathy isn’t quite the right word, but perhaps it’s close enough. Bourdin is aware of the pain he causes to others, and how his own childhood traumas compel him to act in these unforgivable ways, but he simply doesn’t have a problem putting his own interests before everybody else’s. He has no problem admitting to this, either.
The Barclay family, however, has plenty of trouble explaining their own motivations. Carey gets the most airtime of the family members, and though her persona is tough and full of logical explanations for her inexplicable acceptance of Bourdin as her missing kid brother, she’s defensive enough for the audience to doubt her just a little. The mother, a haunted-looking woman with huge eyes and an almost childlike air about her, speaks to the camera totally without pretense (but without really looking directly into it, either). This is a rough family; drugs are everywhere but fathers nowhere to be found, and neighbors report that the police were a regular presence on the property even before Nicolas went missing. As the film progresses it’s hard to imagine it taking any more twists and turns; the final scene, in which a private investigator digs in the family’s backyard expecting to uncover Nicolas’s remains, actually left me breathless.
Layton’s decision, following Errol Morris, to use fictional re-enactments of actual events could easily have turned THE IMPOSTER into a cheap-feeling TV movie. Instead, he calculates the emotional pitch of these vignettes perfectly, and overlaps them with his interview footage so exactly that at several points we see fictional versions of Bourdin and Carey talking while we hear their actual voices speaking the words. This doubling of real people and their fictional representatives recreates exactly the frisson of the uncanny that Bourdin evokes when he lapses into one of his alternate personas. The whole film has the eerie aura of a well-constructed mystery; what takes it from being merely engaging to being totally extraordinary is the fact that, as we’re constantly reminded, it’s all true.
© Lita Robinson 2012