It doesn’t take but a couple of minutes for British documentarian Bart Layton’s The Imposter to make viewers feel uneasy. As the film begins, home movies and photos of a 13-year-old San Antonio boy named Nicholas Barclay — who disappeared without a trace in 1994 — are intercut with painful snippets of conversation with his still-distraught family. Soon it all gives way to staged scenes of a runaway teen found three years after Barclay's disappearance halfway across the globe in Linares, Spain, followed by footage of a full-grown man with a heavy accent casually describing how he perpetrated an epic theft of the boy’s identity. How could a con man succeed at such a bizarre and horrible crime? And why is he allowed to sit calmly in front of a movie camera and explain his craft while exuding an obvious sense of pride in his accomplishment?
That uneasy feeling grows into full-blown dread by the time this entrancing but troubling film draws to a close. The star of the show is real-life serial imposter Frederick Bourdin, a Frenchman who reportedly assumed as many as 500 false identities since launching his unusual career while himself still a child. Bourdin’s life was fictionalized in a 2010 French movie called The Chameleon, which employed Bourdin as a consultant and set his story in Baton Rouge. The Imposter is another kind of film altogether. It’s less interested in identity theft than in the self-deception and complicity required of Bourdin’s victims — in this case, the family of Nicholas Barclay — and how people will force themselves to believe almost anything given the right set of desperate circumstances.
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Bourdain’s brown eyes, dyed hair, thick accent, obviously advanced age and penchant for odd clothing that hid his facial features didn’t stop the Barclays from accepting him as the blonde-and-blue-eyed Nicholas. Bourdin also fooled Spanish police and social workers, an entire Texas community and a federal agency known as the FBI. But there’s more to The Imposter’s layered deceptions. In the film’s final act, events take a sharp turn that alters the meaning of what came before and fairly justifies the seemingly inappropriate style in which the film tells its sordid tale.
That style is a descendant of the early films of Errol Morris, who first blurred his own boundaries between narrative and documentary techniques in award-winning films like The Thin Blue Line. There are no shaky handheld shots in The Imposter. Instead, we find slick widescreen photography, re-enactments by seasoned actors and an expensive soundtrack with familiar songs by David Bowie and Cat Stevens to accentuate the film’s emotional peaks. In the end, all that gloss makes the audience feel like fellow victims of a grand deception. The Imposter demonstrates that anyone can be taken in by a skilled con artist, even one who’s only wielding a movie camera.
The Imposter begins an exclusive one-week run today at Chalmette Movies, 8700 W. Judge Perez Drive in Chalmette.