Atheists argue that most people’s need to believe a comforting fantasy trumps rational thought. Maybe, maybe not, but the new documentary The Imposter showcases a monumental case of self-delusion. Or maybe not. The twisty tale begins, even with its title, by revealing what would seem to be its biggest plot twist: a young man claiming to be a missing sixteen-year-old American child is no one of the sort. Rather, he’s a homeless twenty-three-year-old French con artist winning his way into a comfortable suburban life. Though it sounds at first blush not unlike The Return of Martin Guerre, The Imposter quickly proves stranger than fiction.
Showing levels of chutzpah not recorded before or since, Frédéric Bourdin convinces French authorities that he is an abused teenager, then steals the identity of Nicholas Barclay, missing from San Antonio, Texas since the age of thirteen. Immediately embraced by the troublingly credulous Barclays despite looking nothing like Nicholas (they had different eye colors, for a start), Bourdin can hardly believe his good fortune, but happily perpetuates his growing lie as he moves in with the Barclays and even begins attending high school.
British helmer Bart Layton, making his feature directing debut, takes the story at the brisk pace of a thriller, smartly using reenactments not only to tell the story but to amplify our confusion of identity (in one clever blurring tactic, Layton puts Bourdin’s voice into the mouth of his younger reenactor).
What definitively elevates The Imposter over other true-crime docs are the kooky characters, from the jaw-dropping Bourdin—who manifests every form of egomania in the book—to the delightful veteran p.i. who smells a rat to the seemingly dull-witted Barclay family.
In its final third, The Imposter emulates its antihero by pulling off the impossible: making us skeptically reexamine a situation that already had us on the edge of disbelief. I wouldn’t dare ruin that twist, but simply by presenting us with the facts as they unfolded, Layton winningly encourages more questions than answers. In the end, we’re left with a grinning, madly dancing Bourdin—unsettling, living proof that willful cheaters can and do prosper.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]