Nicholas Barclay, a pale, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, 13 year old boy living in Texas goes missing in 1993. Several years later, his parents receive a call informing them that their son has been found in Spain. But this person is tanned, with dark hair, brown eyes, is clearly twenty-something, and speaks with a thick French accent. Which is very strange indeed. Almost as strange as the fact that they accept him as their son without question …
The Imposter is a documentary about this bizarre story, the debut film from director Bart Layton (he had previously worked on the TV show ‘Banged Up Abroad). The film uses a combination of different methods: contemporary video footage, new interviews with the main protagonists, and actors re-creating past events. (On top of this, some of those recreated scenes involve the actual individuals involved, dubbed onto the actors playing their characters.) In all, it is a highly uncomfortable film to watch for several reasons, both positive and negative.
The first of these is that the story has such an unnerving central character in the form of ‘the imposter’, Frédéric Bourdin. He is a vile – but charismatic and compelling – individual who, at best, is entirely selfish and does not care about anybody else, or at worst, gets a sick enjoyment out of the pain and false hope he causes in others. His interview, unlike the others, is conducted with him speaking straight at the camera, like a hypnotist trying to lull you, and seduce you to believing his view.
But his presence in the film also causes problems. He is such a repugnant attention-seeker, that merely by watching the film, we are giving him what he wants – our time and attention to watch and follow his story. And I personally do not want to give this man any satisfaction. This is particularly an issue because he is so centrally involved in this particular re-telling of his story. This is not a problem with how the film is made. It is a problem with the film being made.
Back to the positives, the story is certainly compelling. Many elements are so extraordinary as to appear fake themselves, and there are plenty of twists to the tale throughout. It is a remarkable story, and some version of it certainly deserves to be told.
But to continue the pattern of giving a negative to counter-balance each positive, the manner in which the story is revealed to us is somewhat of an issue. The film is told in a linear manner, as if the plot of a drama, meaning that the outcome is kept from the audience. In doing this, the filmmakers are keeping information back from the audience, to be revealed as and when they wish. This leaves the audience all too aware of the fact that the version of the story we are being told is the version that the director wishes to tell us, and as this is Layton’s debut film, there is not yet any accountability and trust between the director and the audience. The audience cannot trust that the version of the story we are being told is the ‘correct’ version. He is able to give us the interpretation of each character he wishes us to have. And watching a film about a fraudster, leaves the audience particularly on edge of being conned themselves.
And this is the root of the problem with The Imposter. There may be an enthralling story, but I cannot put my trust in this version of it, leading to a highly uncomfortable watch. Where there was too much trust from the family towards Bourdin, there is too little between me and the film.