Talk about your unreliable narrators. The unsettling documentary The Imposter tells the bizarre story of French con man Frederic Bourdin, who, in 1997, impersonated a missing Texas teenager and lied his way into the United States.
Bourdin not only fooled European cops, U.S. immigration officials and the FBI, he even fooled the family of Nicholas Barclay, a 13-year-old who had disappeared four years earlier. Nonetheless, the Barclays took in Bourdin—23 at the time—as their missing son, despite Bourdin's accent, his lack of physical resemblance to Nicholas and his outrageous story of kidnapping and amnesia.
It seems impossible, but the film lays out how such a scenario can snowball as people believe what they want to believe. Bourdin himself, filmed in uncomfortable close-up, narrates much of the movie in talking-head segments that are woven into dramatic re-creations of the events of the case.
The story is inherently fascinating, but that's apparently not enough for director Bart Layton. The film employs stylized audio and video treatments throughout, plus some highly suspect narrative ploys to generate suspense. The twists toward the end seem dramatic, until you think them through, and the final scenes reveal just how selectively the movie was assembled. When the shovel-wielding private investigator shows up for his Geraldo Rivera moment, you know you're getting jerked around.
This manipulation doesn't seem to bother people, though; the movie has been a hit on the festival circuit, including this year's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham. The Imposter clearly wants to bust through artificial walls of the documentary form, but it unnecessarily breaks a lot of rules.
The filmmakers don't trust their material, which is a shame. In the person of Bourdin, they have a world-class maniac staring down the lens. This story sells itself.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A great escape."