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.
Interviewed at length in The Imposter, Bourdin – who looks like a rougher Joaquin Phoenix – comes across as fiercely smart, endlessly slippery and queasily charming.
“For somebody who’s not very trustworthy, he’s also not very trusting,” Layton, a chatty, articulate Londoner, explains with a sigh. “He is incredibly circumspect. He does massive research on anybody he meets. We wrote to him via his YouTube page. When I met him, he went to great lengths to demonstrate how much he knew about me personally. It is never straightforward dealing with him. He is despicable in many ways. But he can be charming.”
The film is endlessly gripping, constantly surprising and just a little bit slippery. Layton is forced to tell much of the story through Bourdain’s testimony. The trickster asks us to believe that – after he trolled for a substitute identity and happened upon Barclay – the situation steadily escalated until, almost by accident, he found himself on a plane to Texas.
As the film progresses, he begins to outline a subplot that puts an entirely unexpected and disturbing spin on the yarn. But hang on. Are we being asked to believe somebody whose entire life is defined by lies?
“Well, I think you’ve identified something that is right at the heart of the film,” Layton says. “One of the big realisations for me was that, as I heard his story, I began to understand his own twisted logic. He had his childhood stolen from him. He was looking for a family. But the moment you realise you’re buying it is the moment you realise you are falling for the manipulation. Can I put the audience directly at the receiving end of the conman?”
The family does at least have some emotional justification for believing in Bourdain. The US authorities had no such excuse. Among the oddest moments in a very odd film comes when an FBI agent, hitherto suspicious, relates a conversation in which Bourdain explained how the military captured him and, between bouts of sexual abuse, injected him with a substance that changed the colour of his eyes. One expects her to say that this was the point she saw through the lies. Instead, she tells us how moved she was.
“Well, she does say that this person was either a victim of sexual abuse or he was a fantastic actor,” he says. “But she also says she didn’t have the right to question the family’s statement that he was a member of the family. In fairness to her, she also felt that there is a protocol – which he managed to play to his advantage – that if you tell a story of sexual abuse by men in lab coats, the last thing that will happen is that you will be forced to have a medical examination.”
Bourdain is not just clever. He’s a sort of malign genius, is he not? His ability to play his marks seems quite astonishing.
“He’s very, very clever,” Layton says. “Had he applied that intelligence to something else, who knows what he might have become. He could have been an extraordinary actor had he chosen to do that. I suppose he was an actor in his own strange movie.”
The film completes an emotional journey for Bart Layton. Raised in London, he is the son of Bart Layton, a famous artist in glass, and Tessa Schneideman, the esteemed theatre director, who, tragically, died in a car accident while on honeymoon with her new husband in 2000.
He developed early ambition to move into the arts, but was initially dissuaded by memories of meeting pals of his parents who remained “stony broke”. He studied languages at university and, following graduation, drifted into directing documentary series for television.
“My mother would have loved this,” he says. “She and I used to go to the Ritzy cinema all the time. The other day I passed it and the film is on the marquee as the top film. That was huge. That was where mum and I used to watch all the arthouse movies.”
Layton proved himself adept with docudrama while working on the TV series Banged Up Abroad. But The Imposter looks set to nudge him into the big league. Already glowingly reviewed in the US, the picture is the sort of work that generates furious conversation as cinemagoers make their way from foyer to bus stop. What would Bart add to such conversations? What does he believe really happened in San Antonio?
“As a documentary maker, you believe everyone you talk to,” he says. “Despite the fact that much of it is totally unbelievable. You just do. When somebody tells you an emotional story, your instinct is to believe it. I would spend one day believing one thing. The next day, I would come away believing the exact opposite.”
No wonder that poor person at the QA was so confused.
The Imposter opens next week