01 September 2012

Delusions of Grandeur

I do like a good con-man story, but while George Clooney's Danny Ocean and Clifford Irving, as portrayed by Richard Gere, exude charisma and inspire sympathy, the subject of Bart Layton's new documentary The Imposter is a far less likable chap, but his tale is no less compelling and scarcely more believable than Irving's own story.

1994. A young teenage boy disappears without a trace from his Texas town. Three years later, someone claiming to be this same kid shows up at a children's home in Spain, where he is promptly picked up by his older sister and taken back home. A remarkable rescue? Not exactly. For one thing, the boy in question seems to have come from a less handsome branch of the Benicio del Toro family tree, whereas the boy who went missing, Nicholas Barclay, is blonde, fair-skinned and blue-eyed. Then there's a question of how a 13-year-old American boy can totally lose the ability to speak accentless, American English--no matter what claims might be made concerning the horrific things that had happened to him during the missing years. Most troubling of all, though, is how Nicholas's sister Carey could travel to Spain and fail to realise that the boy in the question wasn't her brother after all.

Unsurprisingly, rather than focusing on the family, Layton's movie is very much the story of this imposter, whose name, it turns out, is Frédéric Bourdin. Well, as far as we can be certain, anyway, given that he had left a trail of false identities all over Europe before deciding to disguise himself as a child (he was 23 in 1997, not 16). He tells us his sob story--his French mother was very young and her father was a racist, who didn't approve of Frédéric's Algerian father or Frédéric himself, he says, so he decided to try to be taken on by a real family, who could give him the childhood he never had. Naturally, we have to take everything he says with a pinch of salt: he is a professional liar and an attention-seeker. He has no remorse when he talks to camera about what he did. It was everyone else's fault but his own--yes, he might have rung around dozens of US police stations fishing for information on missing children, but it isn't his fault that the particular family he happened upon were so desperate to believe that their son and brother was still alive, that they would even proclaim that a boy who looked nothing like Nicholas had ever looked was indeed him.

Not everyone is convinced, though. One of the brothers, back in Texas, simply tells Bourdin, "good luck," and avoided being around him. A local private detective is also suspicious--primarily because Bourdin's ears didn't match Nicholas's, a trick the investigator learned from Scotland Yard, dontcha know? Then there's Nancy Fisher, the Mary Portas-lookalike from the FBI who, on hearing "Nicholas's" horrific account of where he had been (kidnapped by the military, abused and tortured), decides he either went through something really terrible or he is an extremely skillful liar. She initially goes with the former--who would make up those lies, she asks--but as the evidence against Bourdin begins to mount, who is going to be left feeling like the greater fool?

The Imposter is a fascinating and engaging film, which still finds time to pack in a few final twists into its already crazy narrative, although you will have to watch the film (or trawl Wikipedia) to find out what happens. Some have criticized the uncensored way Bourdin is allowed to present his case to the audience, but he's so unsympathetic, ruthlessly self-interested and calculating that surely no one can leave the film a) liking and admiring him and b) believing a single word he says. Surely... This may be a spoiler, but for me, perhaps the scariest thing about the film is the end card that reads, "Frédéric Bourdin has a wife and three children." Just...wow!

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