There’s an old saying that the truth is stranger than fiction. Bart Layton’s documentary feature The Imposter takes this idea and runs with it, creating a mystery so bizarre you would never believe it if it weren’t true. Told through a combination of interviews and dramatized recreations, Layton’s debut is an edge of your seat psychological thriller, detailing a series of events which gets more unbelievable as the story unfolds. A gripping, powerful film, The Imposter causes us to question the subjective nature of truth and the power behind lies and manipulation.
In 1994, 13 year old Nicholas Barclay went missing without a trace. Blonde haired, blue-eyed Barclay was last seen walking home from the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas, never to be heard from again. Over three years later, his older sister gets a call saying Nicholas has been found in a small town in Spain, and she quickly flies out to bring him home to the United States. But the boy they welcome back into their home and their lives isn’t Nicholas Barclay, but Frederic Bourdin; a 23 year old French identity thief. This isn’t a spoiler; we meet Bourdin in the opening scene. While this initially seems as though we’re being deprived of the big reveal, the “aha” moment promised by the film’s marketing, it soon becomes clear that there is a good deal more to the story than first meets the eye.
After the truth is revealed, the film focuses on a new set of questions. Why did the Barclays welcome Bourdin into their home, even after he was revealed as an imposter? Was it just because they wanted him to be Nicholas so badly they would believe every lie to continue the charade? Or was there something sinister going on, a desperate need to keep the truth of what really happened to Nicholas buried?
By choosing to focus on Bourdin’s perspective, we are given an insight to a truly strange, fascinating man, who is also selfish and impossibly cruel. Through his interviews, Bourdin comes across as witty and charismatic, but also highly delusional, as he recounts in extreme detail how a fully-grown adult, with brown eyes, badly dyed hair and a thick French accent convincingly become a 16 year old American teen. It is easy to see how someone could be taken in by Bourdin; you want to believe every word he says, despite constant reminders that he is a pathological liar and not to be trusted.
Layton blends these interviews with dramatized recreations, propelling the narrative at a blistering pace, and placing the audience in the middle of the action. Stylistically filmed in a noirish halflight, these recreations add real cinematic weight to the film, steadily building in intenstity with help from an impressive score by Anne Nikitin. However, Layton’s decison to insert the real people into these scenes, by dubbing their voices over that of the actors mouthing the dialogue, while visually effective, is at times distracting, and comes across as a gimmick which adds little to the overall effect of the film.
The Imposter raises a lot of questions, leaving many of them unanswered, but the film isn’t about discovering the definitive truth. Layton doesn’t try to wrap up all the loose threads, but instead gives us the building blocks to reach our own conclusions and prompting a discussion which continues long after the final credits roll. The Imposter takes us on an engrossing documentary, but ultimately proves that some things really need to be seen to be believed.
By Michael Hawks.
The Imposter is screening as part of the Revelation Perth International Film Festival on Thursday July 12 at 3.45pm and Saturday July 14 at 10.30am at the Astor Theatre.
Tickets are available from www.revelationfilmfest.org.