When the story of Frederic Bourdin’s intrusion into the life of the Barclay family is made into a feature film, and it will be, it will have its work cut out to produce the kind of intense, dramatic brilliance of Bart Layton’s documentary The Imposter. This is cinema at its exhilarating mystifying best and Layton deserves all the plaudits he has received since his film’s UK debut at the Edinburgh International Film Festival earlier this year. Given the outlandish subject matter, the film was always going to spark intrigue but Layton has presented it in such a way as to astound and intoxicate with questions. It helps that his central character is as charismatic as he is bizarre.
The film begins in the style of a horror mystery, almost Silence of the Lambsesque with a hint of The Twilight Zone. You would be forgiven for questioning the documentary tag of the film at this point but that aspect is gradually melded into the narrative. Layton’s style is bizarre and dramatic for a documentary but the approach echoes the subject as the something sinister begins to unfold on screen.
The story of Frederic Bourdin will be familiar to some but to those unaware it is truly jaw dropping. Bourdin, a Frenchman on the run from Interpol in Spain for claiming false identity dozens of times, managed to convince authorities in Spain that he was a young boy who had escaped from captors, despite being the age of 23 at the time. Through a series of intricate deceptions, he managed to persuade a number of officials he was in fact Nicholas Barclay, a 16 year old who went missing three years previously from his home in San Antonio, Texas. His plan should have collapsed upon meeting the family, Bourdin looked nothing like young Barclay and was considerably older, but that is where the tale becomes even stranger. The family welcomed him with open arms, never questioning his sudden reappearance. He, who was an orphan from a young age, saw the USA as his land of opportunity, a chance to invent a new identity. By letting the family believe what they wanted to believe Bourdin reinvented himself as Nicholas Barclay.
Although much of what led to Bourdin’s arrival on US shores was down to chance and circumstance, very few people could pull of a deception on the scale he did. He is a slippery and shrewd man whose past has led him to think only of himself, seemingly selfish but really more survivalist. He is a strange but intelligent man in some respects and The Imposter is at its best when the intense and surreal Bourdin regales his story into the camera. You watch his span of emotions move from the joy and exhilaration recalling the victories he had over authorities and society to the pain and suffering he experienced as a youngster. There is definitely a hidden depth to Bourdin’s antics and he is more than capable of charismatically displaying them for anyone who cares to watch.
The Imposter is far more than talking heads however as Layton adopts dramatic re-enactment of much of the story, with Bourdin played hauntingly well by Adam O’Brian. The film becomes a tantalising vision as well as a bizarre and intriguing story. Watching O’Brian strutting down the hallways of a San Antonio high school as Bourdin is captivating; the scene conveys the utter madness of the situation, O’Brian’s knowing smile is one of the cinematic moments of this year.
The film is always tense but Layton knows when to hold back before dropping another bomb. Quietly something even darker is built in the subtext before being released and shining new light on the entire state of affairs. The Imposter is a breath of fresh air from start to finish, Layton expertly weaves documentary and dramatic re-enactment constantly adding layers and revealing more of the story at a very measure pace so as not to overload or bore. One of the films of the year thus far.
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