A classic logic problem places you at the mercy of identical twins: one who only tells the truth and the other who only tells lies. You have one question to determine who to trust.
Cinema practices the art of manipulation. The audience is presented a fixed point of view, you only see everything the director intends you to see. Sometimes the audience will be shown a character is in eminent danger well before the character realizes it for themselves, heightening the suspense. Editing can be used for a disorientating effect, music and audio shifts build up tension. Dramatic camera angles establish how we should view the inhabitants of its world. “The Imposter” doesn’t just rely on fancy shots, or musical cues, it goes further. It places the viewer into a reality shaped by a master manipulator.
Frederic Bourdin was a petty con man, playing on his waning youthful looks and a keen understanding of human psychology to convince authorities he was an abused child past his teens and beyond. By the time he was twenty three he racked up an impressive list of aliases and criminal charges across Europe. When his latest benefactor--an orphanage in Spain--started to get suspicious of his true identity, Bourdin made his boldest move yet.
He put his social engineering skills to work, calling the US child protective services, phishing through missing child cases until settling on Nicholas Barclay, a boy who disappeared from his Texas home three years earlier. Bourdin claimed the boy’s identity.
When Barclay’s sister flew to Spain to meet, the impossible happened. Despite Bourdin looking every bit like his Spanish Algerian forefathers, she accepted him as her formerly blond haired, blue-eyed brother. They flew back to Texas where every family member wholeheartedly welcomed Bourdin as Nicholas Barclay.
Slowly the questions begin to pile up and up. Authorities never fully trust Bourdin but they find he is aggressively protected by Barclay’s family. What should be a mistaken case of fraudulent identity is stretched out for months as Bourdin integrates into American lifestyle.
Fifteen years have gone by since Nicholas Barclay’s disappearance. The contours of this incident are notorious. A documentary such as this, which delivers no new breakthroughs on the case, shouldn’t be a compelling experience. The Imposter succeeds by teasing and tantalizing the audience, not so much by the twists and turns of the plot but by assuming the role of a well worn detective procedural and offering that rarest of gifts in true life crime: closure.
Frederic is chief among the talking heads recounting the story and eventually the filmmakers give him ever more freedom to shape the narrative. Its his accounts that merit reenactment by actors. While modern cinema allows flashbacks to lie, the camera always makes for a compelling witness and they nevertheless reinforce Bourdin’s view of events. By the final third it’s clear that the master manipulator worked the audience all along, playing on our sympathy and feeding our suspicions just as he had with countless social service providers. He slowly, subtly builds a damning case around Nicholas Barclay’s disappearance and deflects away his deserved scorn. Like any good lie, his theories are plausible enough to be true. The lack of hard evidence acts to further implicate rather than exonerate.
Its only in the final shots that the filmmakers show us our first unvarnished glimpse of Bourdin’s true self: dancing in abandon in the thrall of his megalomania. And we in the audience suddenly need to reassess everything we’ve heard so far, even the relatively benign events. To what end do these lies and half truths serve? Who is helped and who is hurt?