Bart Layton’s The Imposter is a heart-stopping case of truth being stranger than fiction. A dark, enthralling and purely entertaining docu-thriller.
Not even screenwriters with the most fanciful of imaginations could conjure the preposterous tale of the French ‘chameleon’ Frédéric Bourdin. The Imposter, a beguiling documentary from British director Bart Layton, unravels – convoluted and verbose, like a Thomas Pynchon novel – into a myriad story that’s breath-taking for its absurdity and horror. And, quite remarkably, it is disturbingly true.
In 1994 a thirteen year old boy, Nicholas Barclay, went missing from his home in San Antonio, Texas. Three years later he was found alive in Linares, Spain. In the intervening years the boy had changed a great deal following the trauma of a terrifying abduction and through the general body-altering rigours of adolescence. He was joyfully reunited with his family and assimilated back in to Texan life.
A seemingly cheerful outcome becomes a veritable gothic of the macabre as the revelation is unearthed that the boy is not Nicholas but a detrimental sociopath and an impersonator extraordinaire, by the name of Frédéric Bourdin. For three and a half months, Bourdin lived the American dream.
Talking heads and reconstructions can come across televisual, but Layton’s documentary is a real spectacle with the absorbing pace of a Hollywood thriller. The Imposter is well crafted with the imagined scenes constructed with a cinematic gleam while interviews with the subjects portray a cast of real-life characters that would not be out of place in a Coen Brothers farce. Other than the wickedly charming Bourdin, whose menacing grin will summon the coldest of chills, the Private Investigator Charlie Parker, who is first to uncover the scam, is a walking caricature of an old-school detective with an exuberant Southern drawl.
The film combines the ludicrousness of Tabloid with the journalistic inquiry of Capturing the Friedmans. As the stories entwine and contrast, it becomes more and more difficult to believe that the Barclay family could be so gullible. A factual story of deception; the mystery is pulsating.
It is telling that there is no writing credit for The Imposter, a story of colossal absurdity brewed from actuality. See it, to believe it.