With a story so mind-boggling it could only be true, British filmmaker Bart Layton delivered the most thrilling and beguiling documentary of 2012 in The Imposter, expertly mixing interviews with dramatic reenactments to tell how a crafty French con artist improbably impersonated a missing American boy with ominous results. This film was one of my highlights of the 2012 New Zealand International Film Festival — this piece is an extended version of my capsule review following that screening — and now that it’s back in New Zealand cinemas I highly recommend you catch it if you get the chance.
In October 1997, the Barclay family of San Antonio, Texas, received a call informing them that their son Nicholas -– who disappeared in June, 1994 at age 13 -– had been located in a village in southern Spain with an elaborate story of kidnap and torture. This boy was in fact a 23-year-old French-Algerian with dark hair and eyes named Frédéric Bourdin, who had a long history of impersonating lost teenagers. But with such a radical difference in age, appearance and accent, how would this man pass himself off as a 16-year-old blond-haired-and-blue-eyed American? This question is at the heart of Layton’s slippery narrative, which is perhaps the most manipulative and entertaining documentary since Banky’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, and while the film has no easy answer, it does provide us with one of the most fascinating — and least reliable — narrator’s in memory with Bourdin, who is always one step ahead of the audience, as though we were just another mark.
While the details surrounding the extraordinary case are somewhat well-known now (as detailed in an extensive 2008 New Yorker piece), it’s best seeing The Imposter with as little prior knowledge as possible for maximum enjoyment. Layton has constructed his endlessly fascinating and addictive film as a riveting true-crime thriller (with a folksy Private Detective named Charlie Parker to boot!) which will confound you at each twist. The noirish, atmospheric reenactments (with Adam O’Brian as Bourdin) recall Errol Morris’ classic true-crime documentary The Thin Blue Line, and while this film does not have the same grasp on a definitive truth, it is similarly interested in pursuing a philosophical inquiry into the untrustworthy recollections of those involved in an incredible story, and it makes for an intriguing inquiry into the nature of subjectivity. You may think this is an open-and-shut case of victimisation going in, but The Imposter proves just how slippery perception and the truth can be, leaving you spinning the story over and over in your head afterwards and wondering if you too have been scammed…
The Imposter is out now in New Zealand cinemas. Watch the trailer below.