F is for Frédéric – The Imposter review

The Imposter – Directed by Bart Layton. By Simon Miraudo.

The Imposter plays the Revelation Perth International Film Festival on July 12 and 14, 2012.

A child goes missing, and, three years later, returns with a different accent, eye-colour, and complexion. If the kid was yours, and you had endured the trauma of losing your beloved son in the midst of his adolescence, would you question his metamorphosis, or welcome him back with open arms? This question is only partly posed in Bart Layton‘s documentary The Imposter, which is more concerned with unfurling increasingly strange and creepy revelations than delving into the nature of grief. This exact scenario took place in San Antonio, Texas back in 1997, when the family of Nicholas Barclay were informed that their long-absent child had been located in Spain. But, as the title suggests and we are informed of near-immediately, it is not Nicholas Barclay. It is Frédéric Bourdin; notorious chameleon and wanted fraudster.

Layton’s documentary reports the bizarre set of circumstances that saw 23-year-old Frenchman Bourdin fool the Spanish and American governments into thinking he was actually a 17-year-old Texan newly escaped from a sex-slavery ring. The Barclay family is so relieved to learn their boy is alive they eagerly take him home, but a suspicious FBI agent and an enterprising private investigator take it upon themselves to look deeper into the case. With the threat of discovery imminent, Bourdin decides to get the media on his side and widely report his miraculous discovery.

*Mild spoilers ahead.*

But soon the manipulative con-artist begins to fear for his own life, suspecting the Barclays of having killed and buried young Nicholas three years prior, and now taking advantage of this unique alibi. The Barclays are given short shrift here, first depicted as idiots and later as criminals (despite the allegations coming from a pathological liar). Layton capitalises on the charismatic Bourdin’s claims because they’re cinematic, not worrying about the toll they might take on the real, human subjects. The re-enactments are stunningly effective in presenting the whole debacle as a Hollywood whodunit, blurring the line between fact and fiction even further.

*End of spoilers.*

If we’ve learnt anything from Rashomon – as well as Zodiac, and similar documentaries Tabloid and Cropsey – sometimes you have to make peace with the fact you’ll never know the truth to some tales. I can’t comment on the veracity of The Imposter‘s climactic allegations, only to say they don’t feel fair, even though I found the suggestions wildly compelling. It is a superbly crafted mystery, but something just didn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s merely the result of spending the time with so many questionable individuals.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

The Imposter plays the Revelation Perth International Film Festival on July 12 and 14, 2012.

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