In 2008, The New Yorker ran a piece by David Grann titled “The Chameleon,” the incredible story about Frédéric Bourdin, a strange Frenchman wanted by Interpol for impersonating missing children. Mr. Bourdin’s motivation was not that of a normal con man: he wasn’t after money, or inheritance. He wanted to be in foster homes, a place where he felt safe to reinvent his own “loveless” childhood.
In 1997, at the age of 23, Mr. Bourdin—brown-eyed, dark-haired (and balding)—was placed in foster care in Spain, impersonating a 16-year-old trauma victim. Due to a series of almost unbelievable events, he ended up identified as Nicholas Barclay, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Texan who had disappeared at the age of the 13.
After winning several major awards at Sundance and the like, director Bart Layton’s take on the Bourdin/Barclay case, The Imposter is hitting theaters with a limited release. The Imposter is a “documentary” in the way Catfish or Errol Morris’ A Thin Blue Line were “documentaries,” with candid interviews spliced with reenactments, found footage, fake interviews and actors representing the characters who surrounded the Barclay case. And there is no way to tell who is real, and who is an actor, or whether the home movies were created expressly for The Imposter, or actually came with permission from the Barclay family. Because this story wasn’t confusing enough to begin with.
To summarize, but not spoil: In The New Yorker article (which is perhaps one of the greatest pieces of non-fiction mystery writing in the past decade), the case continues to take hyperventilating twists and turns once Mr. Bourdin actually goes home to his supposed family, who welcome him with open arms, no questions asked. It’s only after a private investigator (hired by Hard Copy to find the Barclay family to interview for a segment) becomes suspicious over this obvious imposter that the Barclays are suspected of harboring their own dark secret—as well as a fugitive.
All of this is shown in The Imposter, with the grainy footage and “candid” interviews with Mr. Bourdin and the family of delusional victims/sociopaths (depending on your take of the still unsolved case of the whereabouts of the real Nicholas Barclay) he lived with. But Mr. Layton is more interested in the tricks of storytelling, like (update: seemingly) fake local news is spliced with real national coverage, or having the actual subjects suddenly replaced by actors.
As a thriller, The Imposter is gripping. As a documentary, it provokes confusion and annoyance. Is that Mr. Bourdin we’re watching, or the actor Adam O’Brian, who plays Mr. Bourdin as well? Are we watching Beverly Dollarhide–Nicholas’ mother–as she numbly grieves, or an actress playing her? There are no credits at the end of the film, and one has to wonder why the real Ms. Dollarhide would agree to participate in the film (though according to IMDB, that was actually her).
Since the film centers on the question of false identities, this narrative device might be seen as a meta-commentary on the subject himself. But the actor/subject confusion of The Imposter can leave the audience feeling like they’ve just watched a very long episode of America’s Most Wanted.
Our advice? If you’ve read “The Chameleon,” skip it and save yourself the unnecessary confusion. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the movie at face value.
Running Time 1 hr 35 minutes
Directed by Bart Layton
Starring Frédéric Bourdin, Adam O’Brian, Carey Gibson, Beverly Dollarhide