The story at the heart of The Imposter is one of those true stories that would never fly as fiction. It’s too open-ended, too outrageous, too unbelievable. Watching the documentary, you have to keep reminding yourself that this really happened, that scoffing about how none of it makes any sense doesn’t actually make sense under the circumstances. Director Bart Layton presents everything coolly and clearly, but human irrationally simply can’t be rationalized in any satisfying way, making The Imposter an impressive but frustrating, bewildering experience.
With extensive interviews and somewhat shrouded reenactments, Layton gives us the story of Frédéric Bourdin, a dark-haired, dark-eyed, heavily accented Frenchman who managed to pass himself off as a missing blond-haired, blue-eyed American boy seven years his junior. The boy, Nicholas Barclay, had disappeared three years prior at the age of thirteen, and Bourdin, having chosen his new identity almost at random, doggedly presented himself as a horrifically abused teenager, the trauma of which supposedly explained his altered accent and unreliable memories. The Barclays took their “boy” back home, and when authorities became suspicious, they angrily insisted that, all appearances to the contrary, he was their son, their brother, their cousin.
With distance, it’s virtually impossible to understand the family’s delusions, which is why it’s so easy to become suspicious. Maybe the family has an ulterior motive for wanting to pass off a seemingly obvious fraud as Nicholas. Maybe they know more about Nicholas’s disappearance than they claim. And that’s when the film truly takes a turn for the bizarre, when the words coming out of Bourdin’s lying mouth start sounding more plausible than those of his victims (“victims”?).
The Imposter features no narration, no commentary, no direction on what we should believe. It allows us—even slyly, subtly encourages us—to fancy ourselves smarter and more perceptive than everyone on screen, to believe that we can tell who is being honest and who is not.
After all, we all like to think we can tell when someone is lying, and with most people, perhaps, it’s at least theoretically possible. Most people feel some kind of guilt or self-consciousness when they lie. Most people have a conscience, however buried, that can be pricked. But psychopaths are a different story. A true psychopath lacks all empathy and feels no guilt. A psychopath can lie as easily as he can tell the truth.
And Bourdin is a true psychopath. If the Barclays stammer inarticulately when confronted with the mystery of Nicholas’s disappearance, and Bourdin earnestly and persuasively casts doubt on their story, what does that actually prove? Nothing, The Imposter ultimately reminds us. Absolutely nothing at all.