Directed by Bart Layton. 14A. 98 min. Opens Oct. 12.
As Frédéric Bourdin, the enterprising subject of The Imposter, cheerfully admits to the camera, the only physical characteristic that he shared with the American teenager he was pretending to be was that they both had “five fingers on each hand.” Yet, in 1997, Bourdin—a then-23-year-old French street youth with a long history of falsifying his name and age, largely to stay in the system for juveniles rather than contend with adult prisons—had shockingly little trouble assuming the identity of Nicholas Barclay, a San Antonio boy who’d gone missing three years before and should’ve been a lot younger and a lot blonder when he suddenly reappeared thanks to Bourdin’s ruse. Not even his accent was enough of a tip-off for the many authorities and family members who accepted Bourdin as the genuine article until his deceptions became too wild to overlook.
All this makes for a compelling cautionary tale about how strenuously people will ignore or reorder the facts in order to maintain their version of reality. Previously recounted in a 2008 article for The New Yorker and fictionalized in a 2010 drama named The Chameleon, the saga also seems like the kind of stranger-than-fiction tale that has long been a specialty of documentarian Errol Morris. Consequently, Bart Layton’s doc itself feels like something of an impersonation with its very Morris-like blend of dramatic reenactments, interview subjects speaking direct to the lens, and Philip Glass-y musical score.
But whereas Morris likes to arrange these elements to serve an enquiry into the nature of truth or other existential matters, Layton takes a more straightforward approach. As a result, the admittedly bizarre details that fill The Imposter don’t gain any additional resonance through their presentation. Moreover, Bourdin’s candour actually makes the story less mysterious than it originally appears. We’re left to wonder how everyone around him could’ve been so gullible. That reaction does a disservice to Barclay’s bereaved relatives, who have the additional disadvantage of not being as smooth on camera as the man who bamboozled them.