Cheekily edited, brilliantly structured, manipulative in the best sense of the word, Bart Layton’s The Imposter is a true crime documentary that unearths a high profile, already well-examined case of identity theft and somehow manages to render it only more mysterious, more generative of questions. And its questions are haunting, burgeoning in your mind as you go over the facts—or lack thereof. A boy disappears, leaving a black hole in a family; someone comes along to fill that hole, and that someone, against all common sense, is embraced by the family. Some kind of exchange appears to have taken place. A tacit agreement perhaps. It only falls apart when the outside world forces the issue, and then the tacit agreement becomes a crime, a violation, an outrage. At least, that’s one reading of the events chronicled in The Imposter. One of many.
The film’s antihero—or, if you’d prefer, its villain that we’re led to identify with—is serial impostor Frédéric Bourdin. Layton has told his story so that it’s Bourdin we trust, because Bourdin’s been caught, over and over, and speaks openly about his various deceptions. He’s got nothing to lose. While the film’s ostensible victims, excessively naïve, in some cases zombified, seem anything but credible. The bizarre, sensational story, if you missed it during its 15 minutes back in the late 1990s, goes like this: 12-year-old Texan Nicholas Barclay goes missing in 1994. Three years and four months later someone is found in a phone booth in Spain, is taken into custody, and some time later this someone claims to be Barlcay. Carey Gibson, Barclay’s older sister, flies to Spain and, as promptly as legalities allow, takes Barclay home and reintegrates him into her extended family and community. But this Barclay, who was blonde, blue-eyed, born and raised American and only 16 years old, was, we now know, 23, Franco-Algerian, of dark features and hair, and could barely speak English, and when he did speak had a heavy accent. What is going on here? After watching The Imposter I kept thinking about the moment when Gibson and Bourdin first meet. Bourdin claims that Gibson showed him family photos, told him who everyone was, essentially began crash-coaching him in becoming her little brother. Did she have something to hide? Did she just need to have her brother back so desperately that she would willingly accept a substitute?
Bourdin: “I wanted to be someone else. Someone who was acceptable.”
Barclay’s mother: “My goal in life was not to think.”
Crafting a deft braid of reenactments and interviews that owe something to the films of Errol Morris—another filmmaker obsessed with uncertainty—Layton’s narrative builds slowly toward its larger ambiguities. The last act, which introduces us to a wily detective named Charlie Parker, who proves Bourdin’s ruse by way of studying his ears, is as engrossing anything you’ll see on a screen this year, featuring developments that, if you’re not familiar with them, I won’t spoil. Of course the film will leave you wanting more, much more. I keep thinking how much this story deserves a great writer to give us an exhaustive investigative, book-length essay, something as much about psychology, about need and grief, about secret violence and secret contracts, as it is about crimes and disguises and con artists. But The Imposter works beautifully as a lyrical, very cinematic introduction to this deeply strange story.