When Truman Capote published true crime novel In Cold Blood, his legacy was set as the patron precursor of the non-fiction novel. Last year, director Bart Layton succeeded in Capote’s impressionable footsteps by documenting a real-life tale of identity fraud almost too outlandish to believe. Layton’s The Imposter (2012) utilises idealistic, visionary cut scenes spliced with candid first-hand interviews to report on the story of morally paralysed con artist, Frederic Bourdin. Similar to Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost’s Catfish (2010), Layton permits the facts of the case fabricate an undeniably disconcerting narrative.
Where Catfish wavers and The Imposter avails, however, is in the constant fraternising as to who and what to believe. This primarily falls down to the unnerving charm and endearing makeup of its leading storyteller, Bourdin. Speaking with ease and almost disturbing bravado, the Frenchman pilots the account of fooling not only an unsuspecting Texan family, but the whole of the America: press and police in tow. In 1994, a 13-year-old boy, Nicholas Barclay was reported missing. Yet, a remarkable three years later, the boy was allegedly located alive and well but had somehow wound up in Spain.
The authorities notified the grieving Texan family who promptly organised to retrieve their lost and found son. However, on reunion, Nicholas seemed deceptively unfamiliar. Clad in a low worn cap, scarf and sunglasses, ‘Nicholas’ fashioned a darker skin tone, a European twang, different colour eyes and looking a few shades older than 16. Spinning the most bizarre yarn of being kidnapped by an international vice ring, Nicholas’ family overlooked the boy’s physical discrepancies and welcomed him back into their home. What followed was years of deceit and trickery from Bourdin as he seemingly fooled a nation that he was who he claimed to be – the poor, long-lost Barclay boy returned home to his loved ones.
The Imposter places Bourdin, with his anti-hero charisma, at the forefront of the interview process. Accompanied by slick editing and thoughtful cinematography, we too almost fall for Bourdin’s sinister duplicity. While the overall shock and heartbreak of the Barclay family makes for some emotional scenes, it’s Bourdin’s haunting smirk and wink that propels this documentary to stellar echelons. We, as viewers, become fooled by the fool and seduced by his life as a criminal nomad. In the third and final chapter of Layton’s report, Bourdin and members of the police force insinuate one of the darkest twists ever to transcend reality and fiction.
Recently shortlisted for this year’s Best Documentary Feature Oscar, 2013 may see Layton’s work receive the real accreditation it deserves. Not only has he delivered a refined twist to contemporary documentary making, but he is fast-pacing himself to becoming the vanguard of a new age of storytelling; the non-fiction celluloid novel. The Imposter is a near-perfect documentary, making you wish real life would hurry up and happen so we could look forward to the sequel.
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