Director Bart Layton produced and directed several episodes of the T.V. series “Locked Up Abroad,” an experience which prepared him, in all likelihood, for the filming of “The Imposter,” a new documentary full of mistaken identity plots and international intrigue. Nothing could have nevertheless prepared him—or us—for the powerfully bizarre tale he recounted, through interviews and expertly-deployed reenactments, of a man who successfully impersonates others.
First written about by David Grann in the New Yorker in 2008, Bourdin’s story had already been adapted to the big screen 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. In “The Imposter” Layton adroitly provides the audience with all the facts from the start, correctly assuming that the sheer improbability of the story will be enough to keep everyone interested. And was he ever right.
Serial impersonator Frédéric Bourdin—a French-Algerian man—was born out of wedlock to a teenage mother whose family shunned her for having gotten pregnant by an African man.
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Bourdin impersonated a missing Texas teenager, Nicolas Barclay, while living in a home for orphaned kids in Spain in 1997. He got himself into this home under the pretense of being a teenager himself, though he was actually twenty-three at the time. Nearly a decade later in France, Bourdin successfully passed himself off as a fifteen-year old—in reality, he was thirty-one. Craving the camaraderie of the group home, a welcome respite from his habitual drifting, Bourdin was willing to do whatever he could not to be found.
Through incredible cunning he was able to uncover the story of Nicolas, who had been missing for three years by then, and claim his identity. When authorities couldn’t immediately debunk Bourdin’s account, they summoned Barclay’s sister Carey to Spain to test the mysterious teenager’s claims. Implausibly, the sister corroborated Bourdin’s story and told police, Interpol, and the F.B.I. that the scruffy young man—his eyes were a different color than her brother’s and he could not speak English without a heavy French accent—was in fact her lost sibling.
After being taken to the family home in rural Texas, 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 Nicolas murdered and that their mother was trying to cover up the crime. When he’s finally arrested, the impersonator’s thankful to be locked away in the safety of a jail cell. Bourdin, whose interview footage is used throughout the film, is the strangest criminal presence I’ve ever seen. He’s highly perceptive with regards to his own motivations and those of everyone around him, and will easily reveal the impulse behind his every action.
But there’s something nevertheless missing in him: empathy. Bourdin is aware of the pain he’s caused to others, and how his own childhood traumas compel him to act in these unforgivable ways, but he simply didn’t have a problem putting his own interests before everybody else’s. He had no problem admitting to this, either. The Barclay family, on the other hand, had trouble conveying their motivations. Carey, the sister, gets the most air time, and although she is hardy 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 saucer-sized eyes and a vaguely childlike air speaks to the camera without pretense but then, she’s never looking directly into it, either. This is a rough-hewn family, there are addictions, fathers gone missing, and neighbors reporting regular police visits even before Nicolas went AWOL. More twists await: in the final scene, a private investigator digs in the family’s backyard expecting to uncover Nicolas’s remains.
Layton’s use of reenactments could have turned “The Imposter” into a lesser made-for-T.V. movie. Instead, he calibrates the emotional pitch of these vignettes to a perfection, juxtaposing them with the footage of interviews so convincingly that the fictional versions of Bourdin and Carey are talking while their actual voices can be heard speaking the words. This doubling of real people with their fictional twins recreates the same eeriness conjured by Bourdin lapsing into his alternate personas. “The Imposter” has the winning features of a well-constructed mystery, with an extra heap of frissons. What takes it to the level of totally extraordinary is the fact that, as we’re constantly reminded, it’s a true story.
Lita Robinson publishes more movie reviews and news on her blog.