The Imposter tells the story of Frederic Bourdin, a French-Algerian drifter who compulsively impersonates children, and who managed to pose as missing American teenager Nicholas Barclay, convincing both authorities and the boy’s family, and returning with the latter to live in San Antonio, Texas. The film employs techniques more often associated with tabloid television than with theatrically released documentaries: dramatic reconstructions buoyed by histrionic, tension-laden music; to-camera interviews, cinematically lit and shot, in which the subject’s emotions spill forth; and a gradual build-up of suspense, with a slow and well-timed release of important details.
But there are a number of parodic techniques and moments that seem to sabotage or undermine the suspenseful mood and the emotionally heightened story. Sometimes, when Bourdin relates telephone calls he made, a tinny telephone effect is added to his voice. Sometimes his voice synchs up with the lip movements of the actor playing him in the reconstruction. The film demonstrates Bourdin’s expectations of the American authorities by using a brief montage of TV cop shows, including Telly Savalas as Kojak.
Some of the characters, too, appear as movie archetypes, most notably the grizzled private detective with a wild hunch that no one else quite takes seriously. He doggedly pursues Bourdin, babbling to anyone who’ll listen about how Barclay and Bourdin don’t have the same ears. Also, there are numerous implausible details that gradually accumulate (no one challenged Bourdin when he suddenly dyed his hair and got tattooed two days before the Barclays arrived to meet him), which add to the uneasy sensation that Bart Layton’s film is an ‘impostumentary’, an elaborate fake. Even the murky NTSC news footage could be convincingly manufactured, as Chris Morris proved with certain segments of his The Day Today. Indeed, some of the film’s more bathetic moments seem to have a touch of Morris’s unsparing mockery about them.
Yet Bourdin is a real phenomenon, the subject of countless news reports and of a lengthy New Yorker profile in 2008. As his story unfolds, one gets the uncomfortable sensation that a joke is being played. But on whom? On the God-fearing Texan rubes who think that Spain is ‘along the country somewhere’ and are desperate to reclaim their missing boy? Or on the marginalised outsider, unloved from birth due to his mixed-race lineage? On the uncritical credulity of the new emotionalism, the uncritical empathy for the next emotional rollercoaster? Or on the guffawing cynicism that assumes everything is a ‘fake’ or a witting joke that they are hip enough to be let in on?
John A. Riley