The Imposter

Fri, Aug 24, 2012, 01:00

Directed by Bart Layton 15A cert, limited release, 98 mins

Bart Layton’s documentary of serial imposter Frédéric Bourdin is astonishing on many levels, writes DONALD CLARKE

IT WOULD not involve hyperbole to suggest that The Imposter is the most astonishing film you will see this year. This is not to say it is the best or even the most original movie of the season (though it’s pretty darn good and pretty darn singular). No other film will, however, have you rubbing your eyes in disbelief quite so often.

Bart Layton’s documentary focuses on the most remarkable of many hoaxes carried out by a French imposter named Frédéric Bourdin. In 1997, this peculiar, eerily charming young man – then in his early 20s – was found sheltering in a Spanish phone box. Questioned by the police, he began improvising and, after gaining access to missing-person records, found himself claiming to be a boy, Patrick Barclay, who had gone missing in San Antonio three years previously.

The wheels began clanking. A few short weeks later, Bourdin was ensconced with Barclay’s desperate family in Texas. None of this makes any rational sense. Of Algerian descent, the imposter spoke with a pronounced accent and, whereas Patrick was blonde and blue-eyed, Frédéric had brown eyes and – dye dealt with the stuff on his head – dark stubble on his adult chin. Yet both family and the authorities accepted him as the real thing.

The film does not paint the relatives as idiots. Patrick’s adult sister, clearly desperate, comes across as a decent person who subconsciously allowed herself to buy into an attractive alternate reality. It’s hard to be quite so forgiving of the FBI agent who accepted Bourdin’s fantastic tale involving uniformed sex-abusers with the power to alter pigmentation.

Bourdin, who is interviewed at length, looks eerily like Joaquin Phoenix and, as a result, one is reminded of famous hoaxes such as that actor’s recent I’m Still Here. But there is little doubt the film’s story is genuine.

Then again, we should perhaps append the words “to a point” to that last sentence. In the later stages, Bourdin throws us a curveball that – though initially astonishing – ultimately causes the audience to wonder if they are now being sucked into a secondary scam.

This is surely Layton’s intention. Though the dramatic re-enactments are sometimes a little overcooked, The Imposter emerges as a brilliantly slippery film that demands brain-stretching consideration. Astonishing, indeed.