The Imposter (2012) from documentary director Bart Layton and producer Dimitri Doganis, is one of my favourite films. I discovered the film at an independent cinema (Films in Peel) and found myself both surprised and delighted, as the story unfolded in front of me. Latterly, I was lucky enough to work with the line producer of ‘The Imposter’, who gave me insider information about it’s making, further fuelling my appreciation for this film. It premièred at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, went on to win two British Independent Film Awards, was shortlisted for an Academy Award and also won a BAFTA.
Please watch this trailer before reading on…
The film documents the almost inconceivable story of the Barclay Family in Texas, whose thirteen year old son Nicholas disappeared in 1994. Three years later, he is discovered in Spain. The young boy once so fair, now has olive skin, dark hair and his eye colour has changed from blue to brown. He speaks with a thick French accent and remembers nothing of the first thirteen years of his life in Texas. Despite all of this, the Barclays accept him as their son without question, flying him to the states and welcoming him back into the family fold.
The new Nicolas is in fact 23-year-old Frenchman Frédéric Bourdin, con artist and chameleon whose deception we follow in the film. As the story develops, we discover Frédéric’s con itself is inadvertently caught up in a much bigger secret world of larger lies, which even Frédéric couldn’t have anticipated. With a story so bizarre and extraordinary, any film documenting this sequence of events would make interesting viewing. However, it’s the stylistic and structural elements Layton utilises which make this film so unusual and brilliant.
The Imposter is beautifully shot offering the high production values we’d expect from cinematic entertainment. It’s a film like nothing I’d seen before, visually and structurally it’s presented as a work of cinema rather than the traditional documentary format I was accustomed to. It uses a cocktail of re-enactments, subjective first-person interviews, news broadcasts and creepy, genuine home movie footage to create a vivid account of the story.
In an interview, when asked why he decided to create a documentary, Layton explained, ‘The film was presented as a documentary to preserve the truth of the story.’ To me the dramatised elements add to this truth. They’ve not just been put in for the sake of it, they are a visual extension of each character’s subjective story telling. The reconstruction footage re-enforces the individual’s account, meaning we are literally viewing what they recall, what they imagine and what they believe to be true. Periodically the voice over from the interviews will unexpectedly enter the reconstruction world, where by the voice of the interviewee emerges from tan actors mouth with exact lip syncing. I find the subtle implementation of this device exciting. It cleverly reminds us we are watching an entirely subjective account.
Unusually, the interviews are shot with the subject’s eye contact almost directly down the lens. We feel confronted and implicated in the con. As each interviewee tells their isolated recollection of events chronologically, we find ourselves in the enjoyable position of knowing more than any individual speaking. We also feel as if we are the Imposter’s confidant, the parallel editing between each subjective account re-enforces this, building tension.
As with a traditional feature structure, The Imposter can be divided into three acts, of approximately 30 minutes in length. The first act introduces us to both the family and Frédéric Bourdin and sets the foundations for the con. The second act shows the executing of the con and the family’s acceptance of Frédéric and the third act portrays the unravelling of the con and conclusion. In the first two thirds of the film, Frédéric leads the audience through his story of events with direct eye contact to camera.
Excitingly we find ourselves connecting with him, almost rooting for his success. It’s with the introduction of a Private Investigator, Charles (Charlie) Parker, offering us hope and answers, that the film reveals it’s final thrilling twist.
Throughout this process, narratively speaking, Layton does a spectacular job of manoeuvring the audience’s alliance. As an audience, our sympathy is very quickly switched from being in alliance with a family who have suffered a terrible loss, to rooting for a vulnerable young man who’s simply trying to cope in a loveless world the best way he can. The film presents us with several subjective truths, provokes our sympathies and then erases everything we thought we knew to be true.
The main theme of The Imposter is thrilling, it’s one of truth, deception and self deception. Layton bravely creates a space between one perspective and another and in doing so reveals more about both parties than any concrete definition of the truth ever could. In this process, the audience become implemented in the creating of the truth. The theme is poetically mirrored through the film’s dramatised documentary format; the juxtaposition of false vs truths and imagination vs reality.
Layton expertly pulls the rug clean out from under our feet as we the audience find ourselves the latest victims of Frédéric Bourdin.