Watching The Imposter is the definitive exercise in suspending your disbelief. It’s the true story of a 23 year old Frenchman, Frederic Bourdin, who in 1997 assumed the identity of a missing 16 year old American boy, Nicholas Barclay, apparently abducted in Texas three years earlier. Bourdin neither looks nor sounds anything like Nicholas, yet the family accept him nevertheless, convinced that his change in appearance and demeanour are the result of a prolonged period of military sponsored torture. Despite being a documentary, the story is so unlikely that it almost seems surreal. If it had been a film script, it would have barely reached the slush pile.
And yet these bizarre events did happen, the film including interviews with almost the entire cast, as well as footage of how it was covered by local television news at the time. Bourdin himself is the centre-piece, disarmingly matter-of-fact in describing his need to re-live a childhood he felt he never had, whilst Nicholas’ family seem appropriately heart-broken in mourning his disappearance. We also meet the FBI agent who investigated the case. And yet without a narrator to frame our sympathies, the film retains a shifting, transient quality throughout. Who, in fact, is the victim here, and who is the villain? The strangeness of the story somehow prevents us from either condemning Bourdin for his actions, or sympathising with a family who could be duped by him. Hindsight is 20/20, but surely any mother would be able to recognise her son from a man six years older, with different coloured eyes, who speaks in a French accent? Would a family ever be so desperate to have their child back that they would accept someone else instead?
The blurring of truth and falsehood is further underscored by the dramatic reconstruction of many scenes, creating a fiction from reality, and giving the film the slick, dynamic quality of an HBO drama. And when we are introduced to Charlie Parker, a jowly private investigator straight out of a bad detective drama, the level of incredulity rockets.
But the film never descends into farce, instead skilfully unearthing a much darker story arc in its final act. By this point, struggling to comprehend both Bourdin as a man and the Barclays as a family, we’re happy to loop what seems a more plausible ending to the film. It suddenly gives The Imposter energy and suspense, but also makes us conspiracy theorists, happy to believe another story because this one seems so strange. In that sense we’re very much like the Barclays. Not everything is necessarily what it appears to be, even if it seems to make more sense that way.