A documentary about a young Frenchman who convinces a grieving Texas family that he is their 16-year-old son who has been missing for 3 years.
I very rarely review anything that could be considered new, and current. However, this little movie is actually only just out on DVD here in the UK this week, and not out in the US on dvd or on demand until the end of the month I believe. Nice to be ahead of the US for a change! Although it played a lot of festivals last year, so I’m hardly the first person to see it. But still!
Just as a heads up, this is going to be the one review I write that will include spoilers. It’s impossible to talk about anything otherwise really, and the DVD packaging tells you most of this anyway. I am going to guess this film will be winning the Oscar for best documentary this year, so if you would like to keep a clear mind and know nothing about it, then now is the time to leave.
Still here? Ok, here we go. The Imposter is a documentary about the 1997 case of a French man Frédéric Bourdin, who impersonated Nicholas Barclay, a Texas boy who had disappeared at the age of 13 in 1994. After his disappearance, weeks turned into months, and eventually the case was abandoned by the police and press leaving a grieving family devastated. Three years later, the local Texas police department receives an international call from Spain. On the receiving end is Nicholas (well, so they believe). He spins a story about how he was captured but escaped the clutches of a child prostitution ring, the police think his story checks out, and soon enough Nicholas’ sister is on her way to Europe to meet her long-lost brother. In front of police officials, she takes a good look and identifies him as Nicholas. Three years ago, Nicholas was a blue-eyed, blonde haired American teenager, now he’s transformed into a dark-haired, brown-eyed man with stubble and an irreplaceable French accent. He is also a 23-year-old man trying to pass himself off as a 16-year-old. Yet she still accepts him as Nicholas, and they head back to be reunited with the rest of the family. Remember, this isn’t a movie, this ACTUALLY HAPPENED!!
All the way through the documentary, we see the family talking about before and after Nicholas’ disappearance, and then about the build up to him coming home. We also get to see the now much older Frédéric Bourdin talking us through how and why he did what he did. I mean, he is definitely not showing the behaviour of a normal person, but yet is fascinatingly compelling, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His performance alone is worthy of an Oscar, but then you have to remember this is what he really did. He dyed his hair, got some tattoos that Nicholas had (I know, 13 years old with tattoos!), got lucky time after time and managed to get himself to America before finally convincing the family he was their missing son. He had no real care of the damage he was doing to them, and whilst I wanted to hate him for his selfish actions, he was just so charismatic, and just had something you wanted to listen to him even more.
He began his impersonations as a child and claims to have assumed at least 500 false identities, three of which have been actual teenage missing persons. Bourdin lived with the Barclay family for almost 5 months. In late 1997 a local private investigator grew suspicious while he was working with a TV crew that had been filming the family. In February 1998 the FBI got a court order to take the young man’s fingerprints and DNA, which were later identified as belonging to Bourdin. In September 1998 in federal court in San Antonio, Bourdin pleaded guilty to passport fraud and perjury. He was imprisoned for six years, more than twice as long as recommended by the sentencing guidelines.
Whilst it definitely looks and sounds as though I’m telling the whole story, I am literally scratching the surface. And you know what?? There is something potentially even more disturbing on show in this documentary. One of the members of the Barclay family is claimed by Bourdin to have congratulated him, and wished him luck. As in, he knew he was an imposter, but good luck with it anyway. Bourdin actually went to meet the half-brother, Jason, and whilst he was out, his girlfriend at the time told him she believed that Jason had killed Nicholas. Bourdin told the authorities this when they caught him.
This is the fascinating part of The Imposter. There is no resolution, the family obviously deny all these allegations and say they come from a clearly deranged man. It is left up to us, the viewers, to make up our own conclusions. This theory would certainly explain why they allowed this man to come into their lives. If they had killed Nicholas, accidentally or whatever, having him ‘come home’ puts them in the clear. On the opposite side of the coin is the rational part of me that says of course it’s just more bullshit from the Frenchman, and of course the family weren’t involved. They were just so overjoyed their son was home, they overlooked the obvious things due to their happiness. Extreme gullibility certainly appears to be a big factor, but also people blinded by desperation to believe their son is alive.
The Imposter is expertly put together by director Bart Layton. Thoroughly compelling and filled with clues and fascinating performances, but no real answers. How is it possible that the Barclay’s were so blind to the obvious physical differences between Nicholas and Bourdin? Why were they so willing to believe his story and let him stay in their home? Could it be that they had something to hide? A little bit of digging and it came to light that both Nicholas’ mother and older half-brother were both in the throes of severe drug addictions, and that the mother failed one of her polygraph tests when questioned about the disappearance. The half-brother was considered a person of interest, but his death in 1998 as the result of a cocaine overdose effectively stalled the investigation. To this day, the remaining Barclay’s deny any involvement in Nicholas’ disappearance. And Nicholas is still listed as a missing person.
I know I have given a lot away here. But the facts are all over the internet, and this is a story that will get a lot of attention when the awards season kicks in. I hope I can encourage some of you to try and check this out when it opens at the end of the month, and I would love to hear your thoughts on it. For me, whilst I want to say Bourdin is clearly crazy, and his actions were terrible and awful for any family to have to go through, the part of me that sees a lot of horror films and is fascinated by conspiracies is not convinced the family are as clean as they make out. Then you hear Bourdin say something like this:
‘For them to have to pretend that this stranger was their kid, that’s horrific for them. It doesn’t make me any better. What I’ve done was cruel, was bad, was evil, and I deserve every punishment I got. But it wasn’t calculated. It just happened’.
In his odyssey through countless different shelters and homes, Bourdin said he had been questioned by any number of psychologists and psychiatrists. None, he said, understood his motives:
‘It’s hard for anyone to understand that the only thing someone wants is a mum, a dad, brothers, sisters, a life. The only people who have understood that were in those homes and shelters – people who care for the children, or the children themselves’.
I still don’t believe this is enough of a reason to feel sorry for him. But I will say The Imposter is a must see. I can’t even rate it out of ten, because how the hell can I rate it? It’s either a fascinatingly brilliant documentary, that unearths layer upon layer of deceit and possible conspiracies, or just a piece of crap with one man lying his way into a families heart for purely selfish reasons. Therefore it gets either 1 star or 10. However, I loved it, and please let me know how you see it if you ever manage to catch it.