The Imposter: Sundance Film Review

The Imposter

World Documentary Competition

That old idiom about truth being stranger than fiction is an understatement when applied to Bart Layton’s enthralling documentary.

Documentary seems an inadequate term to describe Bart Layton's densely plotted true-crime thriller, which mixes interviews with dramatizations to tell the gripping story of a 23-year-old French-Algerian who assumed the identity of a Texan teenager.

PARK CITY – A mesmerizing psychological thriller bulging with twists, turns, nasty insinuations and shocking revelations that might have leapt from the pages of a Patricia Highsmith novel, The Imposter is all the more astonishing because it actually happened. British director Bart Layton masterfully blends traditional documentary with dramatic reconstructions in this striking true-crime account of the mind-blowing exploits of a serial identity thief.

The subject, Frédéric Bourdin, was given dramatic treatment in last year’s poorly received and little-seen The Chameleon, which recounted a semi-fictionalized version of the same case. Layton’s form may be non-narrative but he has structured and scored the film like a classic mystery, disseminating ambiguity, paranoia and dread in a manner as teasing as it is chilling.

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It’s easy to imagine this material being tailored to the gradual character development and methodical arcs of long-form cable drama like Homeland or The Killing. But even audiences resistant to documentary should be drawn in by Layton’s stylish and suspenseful storytelling, which gets the audience in on the detective work in ways that at times recall the landmark 1988 Errol Morris film The Thin Blue Line.

In 1994, the disappearance of 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay while on his way home in San Antonio, Texas, barely made the news. His family believed he was dead until a call came 3½ years later saying tourists had found a traumatized teenage boy in southern Spain, believed to be Nick. His mother’s health prevented her from making the trip, so Nick’s older married sister Carey flew to Spain to be reunited with her brother.

Layton makes the smart move of recounting all this and the staggering events that follow less from the family’s perspective than from Bourdin’s.  An extensive interview with the French-Algerian imposter, now 35, was shot over two days in London; it provides the location- and time-hopping story with both a binding thread and a fascinating if inevitably elusive psychological study at its center. At times, Bourdin's own voice is dubbed over the words of actors in the dramatizations to arresting effect.

Either candid or a consummate actor, Bourdin says, “From as long as I can remember, I wanted to be someone else. Someone acceptable.” Born to a 17-year-old French mother whose racist father had urged her to get rid of the baby, he explains that he grew up unloved, deprived of a childhood. He claims all he ever wanted was to be in a place where people cared for him. At age 23, he was still able – using body language, withdrawn behavior and as few words as possible – to pass himself off as a teenager.

Those skills served him well in fooling both Spanish authorities and the U.S. Embassy, and more incredibly, Carey. Through his resourceful sleuthing with American missing children agencies, Bourdin obtained photos of Nick, enabling him to modify his appearance. He still looked nothing like the blond-haired, blue-eyed missing boy, but Carey and other family members were willing to accept the dramatic change as the result of his harrowing experience.

“I washed her brain,” Bourdin says of Carey, who helpfully showed him family photos to jog his damaged memory. The minimal information divulged by the fake Nick, hinting at sexual slavery and torture, made the family accept his reluctance to speak about the missing years. With the FBI, Bourdin elaborated on the story. He described high-level military involvement, constant relocation, enforced prostitution, bizarre Josef Mengele-type human experimentation that resulted in his change of eye color, and mental reconditioning right out of A Clockwork Orange that altered his accent.

What’s most astounding – and eventually suspicious – in all this outlandish fantasy is the Barclay family’s willingness to swallow whatever line Bourdin feeds them. Extreme gullibility certainly appears to be a big factor, but Layton also mines the pathos of people blinded by desperation to believe their boy is alive.

On the contrasting side is Bourdin in interview segments, portraying himself as the victim of childhood psychological damage but smirking with satisfaction over his victory in gaining power over adults and reinventing himself. At no point does he show remorse.

Almost as surprising as the family’s credulousness is the sloppiness of the FBI and Interpol. Media exposure led to Texan private investigator Charlie Parker, one of the doc’s more colorful figures, becoming obsessed with the case. He is the first to spot irrefutable physical discrepancies between photos of Nicholas and the fake Nick. When a Houston child psychiatrist gives his expert opinion that this could not possibly be an American-raised child, the story takes a 90-degree turn.

The Imposter assumes even more sinister shades when Parker and former FBI Special Agent Nancy Fisher, who was assigned to the case, begin to believe the Barclays had an ulterior motive in buying the imposter’s story. And in perhaps the most bizarre development, Bourdin himself comes to share that suspicion.

Even if Layton makes it evident from the outset that Bourdin was an imposter, the director and his magician editor Andrew Hulme weave an elaborate film noir-style plot. The documentary provides an illuminating recap of Bourdin’s headspinning history, but also leaves enough tantalizing questions unanswered to keep audiences pondering the details long after it ends.

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The clever use of blurred visuals and bursts of screen static add to the creepy feel of this unrelenting mind-bender, as does Anne Nikitin’s insistently ominous score. There’s also sharp use of songs by the Doobie Brothers, Cat Stevens and David Bowie to mark key moments in pseudo-Nick’s American assimilation. The film ends on a suitably haunting note with Johnny Cash singing “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.”

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Production companies: RAW, in association with Red Box Films, Passion Pictures, A&E Indie Films, Film 4, Channel 4
Director: Bart Layton
Producer: Dimitri Doganis
Executive producers: John Battsek, Simon Chinn, Molly Thompson, Robert DeBitetto, Robert Sharenow, Katherine Butler, Tabitha Jackson
Directors of photography: Erik Alexander Wilson, Lynda Hall
Music: Anne Nikitin
Editor: Andrew Hulme
Sales: Submarine, Protagonist Pictures
No rating, 95 minutes.