Judge Erich Asperschlager isn't who you think he is.
"We had no idea what kind of person…was coming back"
When British documentary filmmaker Bart Layton read a news article about a French con man who made a career out of scamming his way into orphanages, he thought he'd found a good subject for his feature debut. As he and his research crew dug deeper, they uncovered a bizarre true crime story, about a missing boy, his grieving family, and a man they refused to see as The Imposter.
Facts of the Case
In June of 1994, a 13-year-old boy named Nicholas Barclay disappeared without a trace in San Antonio, Texas. Three years later, his family got a call from Spain, claiming that Nicholas had been found. When the teen returned home, they welcomed him with open arms, not wanting to admit that something about him wasn't right.
The Impostor is an unconventional documentary, partly by design and partly because of the nature of the story pieced together by Layton and producer Dimitri Doganis. Parts of this story were well-covered by news outlets in the late '90s, after it was discovered that the boy claiming to be missing Texas teen Nicholas Barclay was actually a 23-year-old con man named Frederic Bourdin. On the surface, it's a shocking story about a monster taking advantage of a family tragedy. The film goes deeper, asking difficult questions of everyone involved. How did any of this happen? How could a career criminal like Bourdin put himself in a situation where he was guaranteed to be caught? How did a grown man who looked and sounded nothing like the boy he was pretending to be, evade detection for so long? How could Nicholas Barclay's family not know he was a fake?
It's that last question that makes The Impostor such a baffling, compelling film. What begins as a twisting tale about a con man who stays one step ahead of the law changes the moment Nicholas's sister sees Bourdin and accepts him as her brother. And again, when their flight lands in Texas, and every member of Barclay's family hugs the stranger, telling him they missed him. At that point, The Impostor becomes a family drama, exploring the nature of grief and the frightening ability of the brain to believe lies we want to be true. The story itself sounds too far-fetched to be true. If it was the premise for the latest Hollywood movie, it would be laughed out of the multiplex. Because this happened to real people, however, we have to face our own human limitations, and consider the possibility we might make the same mistake.
In Bourdin and Barclay, Bart Layton found the perfect story for his film, but making The Impostor wasn't easy. Most documentaries rely on archival footage, but the filmmakers tracked down Nicholas's family only to find that almost all of their home videos had been destroyed in a fire. With their options limited to interview segments, the filmmakers made the bold choice to shoot extensive dramatic reenactments to flesh out the story. They hired actors (like Bourdin's uncanny stand-in, Adam O'Brian), scouted locations in Europe and Texas, and nearly bankrupted the production. The risky move paid off. What might have been the death of credibility for another documentary becomes an inspired choice for a story being told by people with different accounts of what really happened.
The other smart decision Layton and Doganis made was to hand over so much of the narrative to Bourdin himself. He is the most unreliable of narrators, but he knows how to tell a story. His descriptions of the ways he conned authorities on both sides of the ocean to steal and maintain his false identity is like something out of a Hollywood thriller. Bourdin freely confesses his crimes, yet he paints a picture of a tragic childhood that seems for a moment to justify his actions. We know he is a master manipulator, and yet we are drawn in by his charm like any other mark. The spell remains intact until the very end, after Bourdin has us on his side, adding his own twisted theory about what happened to Nicholas just to muddy the waters. We know he's a liar, but it's not enough to dispel the feeling that he's not the only one with something to hide. Everyone, from the family, to the FBI agent, to the private investigator who first uncovered Bourdin's deception, has their own version of what happened. The Impostor brings us only as much of the truth as the participants are willing to admit to themselves.
In its story and style, The Imposter walks the line between documentary and Hollywood drama. The talking head interviews are nicely shot, but the best-looking parts of this 2.35:1 transfer are the reenactments. Forget the low-budget dramatizations of Unsolved Mysteries, these moody sequences creating a tense atmosphere that's ratcheted further by Anne Nikitin's score. The movie is essentially just people talking, and yet the editing, photography, and immersive 5.1 audio mix give it the momentum of a big studio thriller.
The disc's lone bonus feature is "Making The Imposter" (41:30). The story of how this documentary was made is almost as fascinating as the movie itself—with plenty of twists and turns as the filmmakers dealt with logistical and budgetary issues. It's long, but worth watching. Smartphone-enabled viewers can use a QR code on the disc to access a 22-page PDF of original government documents.
Plenty of Hollywood movies say they are "based on true stories," but between you, me, and a stack of studio notes, I take that claim with a hefty pinch of the white stuff. Those words might sell a few more movie tickets, but no one ever let a little thing like the truth stand in the way of a big opening weekend. The Impostor sits somewhere between documentary and drama, acknowledging that sometimes finding out the truth isn't as simple as asking the people involved what happened. Sometimes, it's not even as simple as trusting your own eyes.
Someone is guilty, but it's not this film.
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