By Todd Gilchrist | The Playlist January 25, 2012 at 7:28AM
It isn’t often that audiences will feel inclined to believe the word of a proven liar over a family who suffered as a result of his dishonesty, but “The Imposter” achieves that unusual feat. A documentary about a family stricken with tragedy that unwittingly takes in a con artist, director Bart Layton tells an almost too-amazing-to-be-true story that creates a truth, establishes sympathies, and then razes everything we think we know. A remarkable, entertaining and even sometimes shocking film, “The Imposter” utilizes reenactments and first-person interview footage to create a vivid account of a story whose actual details seem impossible to parse out from an entanglement of the participants’ recollections, feelings and most unexpectedly of all, their hopes about what actually happened.
The film chronicles the unusual history of the Barclays, a San Antonio family whose youngest son Nicholas disappeared in 1994. Three years later, a 23-year-old Frenchman named Frederic Bourdin confessed to European authorities that he was Nicholas, and within a short time, members of the Barclay family retrieved him and brought him to their home. But as Bourdin improbably acclimates himself to life within their family and their community, doubt creeps in from the authorities who helped the Barclay family, even as Bourdin begins to wonder if there wasn’t some deeper reason that they brought him home despite overwhelming evidence that he was in fact not Nicholas.
The opening sequences of the film focus on the Barclays’ perspective, quickly establishing a sense that they were victims first of a kidnapping, and then the perpetration of a lie by some con artist. But as the story unfolds, Layton first examines Bourdin’s motivation for pretending to be Nicholas, and then takes a closer look at how, and then why, the Barclay family would not only accept this con artist into their lives, but maintain his identity as Nicholas for an extended period of time. While the director’s portrait of Bourdin’s upbringing is impressively unsentimental, it nevertheless generates a degree of empathy for the young man, especially as he describes in his own words what he believes is the inevitability of him being caught. Although he was a gifted grifter, he immediately acknowledges the physical limitations of impersonating someone unlike himself, much less from another country, and the foundation of his skill set tenuously hints at the possibility that the Barclay family was complicit in the ruse.
The second half of the film, meanwhile, takes the story in a dramatically different direction, first by unexpectedly making Bourdin its protagonist, but then assembling a wealth of evidence that not only suggests that the Barclay family was aware he wasn’t Nicholas, but that they may have murdered the boy themselves and covered it up. While there are certainly other documentaries that have introduced contrary information into what initially seemed like and open and shut case of victimization and culpability, Layton does a spectacular job of turning the tables, narratively speaking, on a family that we first saw grieving, and highlighting the subjectivity of perception and truth, whether it’s coming from the mouth of a group of people who suffered an unimaginable loss, or a French twentysomething with a track record of dishonesty.
Layton also utilizes reenactments to dramatize the events of the case, and while that approach enhances some of the intensity of the events as they’re being described, he somehow manages either via aesthetic sophistication or just moderate use to avoid them becoming a portrayal of a truth, much less “the” truth. It’s in these segments that “The Imposter” resembles such documentaries as “The Thin Blue Line,” where Errol Morris made extensive use of reenactment material to showcase the subtle but important differences between the recollections of the various participants in that case. While there’s a cinematic quality to Layton’s recreations of events that occasionally betrays a more simple documentation of what happened, or at least what the participants claim happened, he manages as a whole not to become too indulgent in the images and music of the sequences, conjuring a sort of fiction that, eventually, it seems like both sides of this incident would like to believe.
That said, there isn’t a definitive result to Layton’s examination of this incredible set of circumstances, and to be honest, he leaves at least one end too loose to fully satisfy audiences in search of just a little bit more certainty. But among true-crime documentaries, this film is first among equals precisely because it seems unwilling to advance too aggressive a hypothesis about either its initial heroes or their would-be antagonist. Ultimately, however, “The Imposter” is a great commentary on the subjectivity of any event, and one that probes deeply into the motivations of its subjects. And while in a beautiful way it declines to judge either side’s observations and arguments, its examination of that nebulous space between one perspective and another reveals more about both parties than any concrete definition of the truth ever could. [B]