A story so bizarre, its hard to believe its true.
British director Bart Layton makes an astonishing entrance into cinema with his feature debut, The Imposter, a ninety-minute documentary that tells the remarkable story of French conman Frédéric Bourdin. Three years after thirteen-year old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from the Texas suburbs in 1994, his family receive a phone call from Spanish officials claiming that they have found the missing child. However, the child is in fact twenty-three year old Bourdin who hopes to deceive Nicholas’ family, US embassy officials and FBI agents and gain entry to the United States – but that’s only the tip of the iceberg for this bizarre tale.
Not only is Bourdin’s story compelling in its own regard, but the way in which Layton presents it makes for a truly fascinating piece of cinema. The British director blurs the boundaries between documentary and narrative filmmaking by presenting compelling true-crime facts with the high octane verve of a white-knuckle thriller.
Reality, in the form of archive footage and talking heads interviews, is seamlessly woven around dramatic reconstructions of the events in this exceptionally, and purposefully, mysterious documentary. Layton never gives too much away at any one moment and leaves his audience craving for further information. In many other documentaries the use of a combination of real person and actors for each ‘character’ has often resulted in confusion, but here that is not the case. The actors have been cast perfectly and with the aid of some sublime cinematography, these dual performances complement each other in glorious fashion.
The true highlight of the film is the access that the filmmaker is granted. He conducts interviews with everyone involved; from the Barclay family to American FBI and Consular officials. Most impressively of all is that Layton interviews Bourdin himself and positions him as the central character for this whole story. It’s rare to hear a story like this told from the perspective of the criminal – and it works magnificently. However, this bold and unique decision develops problematic issues regarding morality. There’s too much sympathy for Bourdin and too much focus on his justifications for his deceptions and crimes.
At first Layton’s documentary packs a punch with its suspense-filled craft, but will linger on audiences’ minds long after the credits roll as they consider the themes of identity, human nature, society and national security that are anchored to this incredible story. Not only is The Imposter among the best documentaries ever made, but it easily holds its own within the diverse thriller genre.