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SXSW The Imposter Review: I Don't Know Why You Can't See

By Seth Freilich | Film | March 10, 2012 |

By Seth Freilich | Film | March 10, 2012 |

The best documentaries show us just how true it is that life can be stranger than fiction.The Imposter is here to show you that life isn’t just stranger than fiction; life sometimes comes up with the kind of crazy sh*t that fiction can’t even dream of. In fact, 2010’s The Chameleon is based on the story documented by The Imposter and part of why that movie failed (but by no means the only reason) is because the story just seems so preposterously unbelievable. The Imposter is about Nicholas Barclay, a 13-year-old blonde boy from San Antonio who went missing in 1993. Three and a half years later, his family gets a call telling them that Nicholas has been found in Spain. But the Nicholas who comes home to the Barclay family isn’t a 16 year old boy.

He’s a 23-year-old-man.

With poorly-died blonde hair.

And a French accent.

And he is welcomed by the Barclay family, with open f*ing arms, as their missing son. It’s insane and makes no sense, which is why I had to see the film, to try to understand how this could be possible. How could this French man so deceive this grieving family (and the U.S. Embassy, who believed him enough to give him a passport in Nicholas’ name). The film does a good job of taking us through exactly how this came to be. Telling you that the Nicholas who returns is an imposter isn’t giving anything away — it’s in the title — and director Bart Layton doesn’t try to hide the ball. One of his key narrators/interviewees for the film is Frésdéric Bourdin, said Imposter, who speaks early and often throughout the film. Bourdin explains in detail how he wound up becoming the Imposter and how or why he believes Nicholas’ family bought into it.

While it’s despicable what Bourdin did, there is also an evil-genius to how the whole thing started. Bourdin was apparently motivated by the desire to have a real childhood that he had never experienced and, when confronted with the prospect of being sent to jail, he comes up with a clever plan that winds up leading him down the road to becoming Nicholas. Now I say that he was “apparently motivated” because, as the film progresses, I found it harder to take Bourdin as a completely trustworthy narrator (I gave him the benefit of the doubt in the beginning, despite going in knowing what he had done, because he obviously had been caught and wasn’t trying to cover over this massive and horrible deception he tried to pull off).

Layton also has a few other key talking-heads to help tell the story, primarily Nicholas’ mother and sister, and the FBI agent who was tasked with investigating the kidnapping tale “Nicholas” told of upon his return. And through these and some other pieces, Layton successfully spins the tale. And then we meet a private investigator, hired by “Hard Copy” to do a piece on the returned Nicholas. The show hired the PI to cover its ass, wanting to be sure that this was indeed Nicholas. And as the PI explains to us, he not only helped confirm that Bourdin wasn’t Nicholas, but uncovered a whole other piece to this story.

I won’t give away where the story goes from here — though if you’ve seen The Chameleon or are otherwise familiar with the story, you already know — because it’s \ incredible to watch it all unfold. As for how it unfolds, Layton takes an interesting approach to presenting things. There are of course your normal documentary-style talking heads (for example, he spent two days filming his conversations with Bourdin). But, as Layton explains it:

Every person we talked to seemed to have their very own version of the truth and all of them as believable yet implausible as each other. So the big question as a filmmaker was how would I tell a story where the truth was so elusive? My solution was to try to take the audience on a journey as twisting and turning as the one we experienced in making the film - embarking on every character’s journey with them, embracing their subjective realities; a journey upon which we lurched from one version of the truth to another, from sympathy to condemnation and back again…. So, the film contains a good deal of very stylized sequences in which what happened in the past is visualized - the objective of which is not to create a definitive picture of the truth or to try to trick the audience into believing something is real that is not but rather to attempt to envisage the story the interviewees want to tell us.

And so there are these recreations that occur, showing us certain moments and scenes that are described by our talking heads. What’s really bizarre about these recreations, though, is that he uses some of the actual people, mainly Bourdin, in them. So we fluidly cut from Bourdin talking to the screen, for example, narrating how he placed a phone call to begin the whole chain of events, to a desolate phone booth being rained on, with Bourdin inside, continuing his narration within-scene. It’s a jarring effect and falls a bit short of what Layton was looking to do. Rather than pulling me deeper into the story, I found myself removed, distracted by and thinking about the gimmick, which borders on being uncomfortable at times. In other places, while the recreations show us an event, they don’t really add anything to what we’ve already been told.

There are other complaints I can make — sometimes the pacing is off, the film concludes a bit unsatisfactorily, and Layton fails to interject what he believes about things in one of those rare moments when I actually want to know the documentarian’s take on what we’ve seen. There are also good moments — Layton’s documentary style does work quite well in some places, and he even manages to draw a laugh or two with the way he inter-splices certain clips and moments. And the actual footage of “Nicholas” returning home and reuniting with his family, seeing how ridiculous Bourdin looked, is utterly compelling. But frankly, this is one of those instances when the good and bad of the filmmaking just really don’t matter. This is simply a story that you have to see to believe and, at the end of the day, Layton shows us this story. You may not know what to think about it, what to believe, or what “the truth” is, but you will sure as hell enjoy the journey.

The Imposter premiered at Sundance (from which we were banned!), screened at South by Southwest 2012 (from which we wasn’t banned) and will likely be released sometime later this year.

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Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.