Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his family home in San Antonio, Texas at the tender age of thirteen. Three years and four months later, an unaccompanied 16-year-old boy is found in France. When circumstances lead French authorities to believe he is Nicholas Barclay, he’s swiftly returned to a concerned family who welcome him all too easily. However, as the FBI and a sole private investigator notice subtle differences that, for some reason, have been overlooked by the family, it soon becomes clear that so-called Nicholas Barclay is in fact impostor Frédéric Bourdin (portrayed in interviews by Bourdin himself and in dramatisations by actor Adam O’Brian).
The real-life story of Bourdain who was, at the time of his eventual imprisonment, dubbed by many sources “The Chameleon”, The Imposter mixes a concoction of styles and elements synonymous with the documentary genre in bold and interesting new ways. It’s a technique that, through writer and director Bart Layton’s meticulous attention-to-detail and obvious personal curiosity in the horrifying situation, creates an intoxicating atmosphere in which the audience are entirely immersed from start to finish.
Layton, then, with the audience barely admitted a moment to breathe, delivers a thrill ride of emotion, disillusionment and sheer bewilderment, both as to how Bourdain was able to alter his whole appearance and personality, and how the family were careless enough to overlook the obvious differences between Bourdain’s assumed position as Nicholas and their son whom they should be able to recognise instantaneously due to the most basic of features, such as eye colour and speech.
The information peters out, bit-by-bit, whether it be through modern-day reenactments, CCTV footage or confessions from all parties, in such a way that not only maintains an equal level of knowledge between the audience and the people being duped, ensuring a quick, timely pace. Dismay and alarm perpetuate the entire film, as we are lead deeper and deeper into the mysteries surrounding this family. The progression may be helped no end by the advancements from the FBI, but it’s the private investigator’s continued probing that drives the story to its conclusion, providing The Imposter with a particularly stand-out supporting plot thread.
It’s a situation that’s not only unbelievable, but poses some culturally relevant questions that pertain to society’s growing dependancy on the internet and the ease it presents for people – of any age and any race – to either steal others’ identities or mould their own for benefits that can only be described as deplorable. But, what it doesn’t do, and what some may find distressing, while others will find it only strengthens the overall effectiveness of the documentary, is explore how apathetic Bourdain himself is, and how no amount of suffering is likely to have any effect on his future as an impostor.
While the music devised and interweaved into the proceedings by Anne Nikitin often manipulates emotions in a particularly superficial way and the audience will be left afterwards picking through the mountain of questions Layton leaves unanswered, The Imposter is one of those rare documentaries that, while its hard to know exactly how much is intensified for the purposes of making the film, is genuinely unsettling and infuriating to believe as fact and fiction. Layton is a talent to keep an eye on, and, as the events play out and the mood intensifies, it becomes hard to separate O’Brian from Bourdain.