The great pretender
How did an adult Frenchman manage to successfully pose as a missing Texas teenager? The maker of a documentary
about the hoax still isn’t sure, he tells DONALD CLARKE
BART LAYTON’S The Imposter has an unlikely story to tell.
“We had a QA after a screening and somebody put up their hand and asked if the film was based on a true story,” he says, still slightly incredulous. “They’d just watched a documentary, albeit a strange one. There have been several reactions like that.”
This is not altogether astonishing. Long before the film hits a narrative hairpin in its final act, The Imposter breaks new ground in the field of creative implausibility. Yet, the facts stack up. Layton is – so far as he’s able – telling us the truth.
In 1997, a family from San Antonio, Texas, received some stunning news. A young man had turned up in Spain claiming to be the missing teenager Nicholas Barclay, for whom they had been searching since 1994. As the film’s title makes clear, Layton makes no attempt to hold back the information that we are dealing with a bizarre hoax. He could hardly have done otherwise. Frédéric Bourdin was a grown man with brown eyes and a pronounced French accent. Nicholas had blonde hair and blue eyes. Yet Bourdin somehow managed to live with the family for a full five months before being exposed.
How on earth did he pull it off? Is this a story of the way otherwise alert humans can mould perceptions to satisfy their deepest longings?
“I think the big question that the film poses is about that desperate need to create a truth that suits you better than reality,” Layton agrees.
The film spends a great deal of time with Carey Gibson, Nicholas’s determined sister, and depicts her as an honest person with no secrets to hide. Yet, she somehow manages to believe the unbelievable.
“I think that’s right. I believed the story she told, which is one of discombobulation. She flies to Europe. She’s confused. She’s never left the country. Her first thought is: ‘He looks like our Uncle Pat.’ I hope when you’re watching the film, you’re not thinking: how could you be so stupid? You are, I hope, thinking: you poor woman; you are blinding yourself to the truth.”
It transpired that Bourdin was a serial imposter nicknamed The Chameleon by the authorities. Of Algerian and French parentage, he seems (so little is certain) to have been raised in a children’s home and to have suffered significant degrees of abuse when young. Over a 15-year period, he assumed dozens of false identities and had a particular enthusiasm for adopting the personae of missing children. His motivations are still unclear, but he seemed in search of acceptance rather than monetary gain.