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The Imposter (2012)

Erik Wilson/Indomina Releasing

San Antonio, Texas, in 1994, mischievous 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared without a trace. For three years his family pined for him, searching, praying and holding out hope that he would one day be found alive and well. Then the seemingly miraculous happened as Nicholas appeared in Spain — afraid and alone, the apparent victim of a child prostitution ring. Except “Nicholas” was not whom he claimed to be and so transpires an utterly beguiling and completely baffling journey into the psyche of serial impersonator and eccentric con man Frédéric Bourdin.

Director Bart Layton, collaborating with esteemed documentary producers John Battsek (“Project Nim”) and Simon Chinn (“Man on Wire”) combines revealing first person accounts with effective dramatizations of the hows and whys of Mr. Bourdin’s unbelievable deception. Mr. Bourdin himself features heavily (Adam O’Brian in re-enactments), excusing his behavior with tales of a broken childhood and a sense of abandonment. “I wanted to be someone else, someone acceptable,” he mused, all vulnerable and childlike in his demeanor, characteristics that of course lent his fables credence and sympathy.

Mr. Bourdin craved the care and attention that was so evidently lacking from his own childhood, going some way to explain his motivation to become someone else — anyone else — as long as whoever he became was wanted and loved.

Yet where Mr. Bourdin’s already fascinating story takes a rather more incredible turn is when he was able to mislead not only the Spanish authorities but then cynically attempted to deceive Mr. Barclay’s desperate family of his contrived identity. It’s a clinical punt that rapidly spiraled beyond his control, but one that he was utterly committed to seeing through.

Despite dying his hair blond and copying Mr. Barclay’s distinctive tattoo, it’s apparent that the 23-year-old Frenchman could not possibly resemble a blond, 16-year-old Texan and it seemed that the game was effectively up. Yet — and this is perhaps testament to the will to believe — he convinced Mr. Barclay’s sister Carey and mother Beverley that he was who he claims to be. It is supposed that they never actually believed Mr. Bourdin’s lies, suggesting they clung onto the miraculous ideal of Nicholas’s return, to the extent that they were willing to gloss over the inconsistencies in Mr. Bourdin’s manner and appearance.

Even with the F.B.I. and off-kilter private investigator Charlie Parker seemingly closing the net, Mr. Bourdin delved even deeper to maintain the lies. It’s apparent that he’s an extreme fantasist with nothing to lose, prepared to go to any lengths to fool those around him. Yet it also becomes clear how Mr. Bourdin was so successful in his ruse, spinning nonsense into rhetoric that had even the sanest observer questioning the veracity of each and every word.

And it’s that sense of doubt and deception that lies at the very heart of Mr. Layton’s utterly compelling and skilfully constructed picture. While Mr. Bourdin is the main exponent of the lies, it’s evident that “The Imposter” is just as much as commentary on our ability to deceive ourselves. Desperation begets a willingness to cling on and embrace a sliver of hope, regardless of our better senses telling us otherwise. While niggling doubts will always exist, isn’t it better to embrace the chance, however slim that might be?

It would be too simplistic to dismiss Carey et al as blinkered and that would be to miss the point. They were duped because they wanted to believe Mr. Bourdin’s spin and because the uncertainty and doubt that surrounded the alternative, the reality of Nicolas’s fate was a far worse cross to bear.


Opens on Aug. 3 in Los Angeles and on Aug. 24 in Britain.

Directed by Bart Layton; directors of photography, Erik Alexander Wilson and Lynda Hall; edited by Andrew Hulme; music by Anne Nikitin; produced by Dimitri Doganis; released by Indomina Releasing (United States) and Picturehouse Entertainment and Revolver (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.


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