director Bart Layton
The Imposter is a very disappointing documentary about a very fascinating story. A few years ago, I read a New Yorker article about the case which I found immensely intriguing. It’s one of those stories that stick with you, haunt your brain, and fascinate.
It’s the story of serial “impostor” Frédéric Bourdin, a French adult (in his young 20’s at the time) who pretended to been a lost teenager in place after place, all over Europe. When his identity is investigated in Spain, he pretends to be a missing teen from Texas, Nicolas Barclay. Barclay had disappeared three or four years before and his family was thrilled to have found him. So thrilled that they brought him home, treated him as the lost son, despite the fact that Bourdin had different colored eyes from Nicolas and spoke with a pronounced French accent.
The article delved into the psychology of the family who denied the obvious, so desirous of finding a lost child. But beyond that, there was suggested some complicity of one of Nicolas’ brothers to have perhaps been involved in the real Nicolas’ disappearance and potential murder. It’s suggested that the family may have contrived denial even more so for having sensed this truth.
Eventually, the truth came out, Bourdin went on to more hijinks before eventually settling himself into an adult life. What The Imposter does offer is Bourdin’s side of the story. His interview narrates the bulk of the film. He divulges his damaged childhood as a half-Algerian child abandoned by his parents, his lack of identity that made him strive to live other childhoods in other places. His “chameleon-like” skills, his life flitting from identity to identity as an emotional search, not just the work of a sophisticated confidence man.
Nicolas’ family are shown as the honest rubes, motivated out of sorrow and love. And they come across as earnest people.
The film, however, adds very little. There are such strange psychologies at work in Bourdin himself, in the Barclay family, the depths are left unsounded. The style of the film, using recreations and other stylistic flourishes seems more interested in its own flair than in the rich truths below the surface of this bizarre, fascinating story.
Ultimately, no one knows what happened to Nicolas. The mystery pertains. The brother who was thought to have potentially killed him died of a drug overdose. The family denies the truth of that. A family so eager to find its lost son that it believed such an unlikely story, such an unlikely impostor. Read the article, skip the movie.