Ingeniously mixing fact and fiction in both form and content, Bart Layton’s The Imposter is easily one of the most gripping films of the year that just happens to be a documentary. The titular imposter in question is Frédéric Bourdin, a man known in France as “The Chameleon” for the years he spent impersonating others as a bizarre con man. However, one particularly sociopathic adventure he went on in Texas is what made him somewhat famous (a New Yorker story and forgettable fictional feature already exist) and is the subject of Layton’s film. It’s a bizarre and undeniably fascinating story told in the half-truths, fading memories, and conflicting perspectives of Bourdin and the family he victimized with his malicious lifestyle. Layton made a wise choice to structure the tale as a documentary, because presented as a fiction means chances are you wouldn’t believe it happened. But it certainly did, and it’s hard to imagine a better means of telling the story than what Layton whipped up.
In 1994, a young boy disappeared from his San Antonio home. For three years the family searched for their missing son until one day they got a call from Spain claiming that he had been found. They quickly flew over and collected the person they thought they knew. Even though he was noticeably taller, had darker skin, and his blond hair was clearly a bad bleach job, they accepted him into their home. It was of course Bourdin, who was 23 at the time, spoke with a heavy accent, and looked nothing like the person he claimed to be. Somehow the family was duped and Bourdin started attending high school in the Texas community. He managed to fool many others as well from the FBI to the media who aired national news stories about the remarkable discovery. However, things were just a little too fishy for Bourdin to get away with creating a new life. Eventually an eccentric private detective named Charlie Parker was called in to investigate and uncovered the truth. Bourdin was promptly arrested, but not before raising some tantalizing questions, like how the family was so willing to accept the imposter? It went on too long to be written off as something as simple as being blinded by grief. Perhaps they knew a little more about how the child initially disappeared than they originally let on.
Layton wisely never gives over the movie to a single perspective. He starts with Bourdin who giddily explains his tactics, even admitting he panicked when he saw the face of the boy he would pretend to be and realized that he looked nothing like him. Gradually each of the duped family members come in to tell their version of the story (along with the endlessly watchable Parker) and the web of possible truths becomes increasingly complex. By the end it’s hard to find a single reliable narrator. Bourdin is obviously a compulsive liar with a love of perpetuating his own legend, while the family seem increasingly suspicious as the film goes on, particularly the mother who is cold and distant with a questionable past (which could merely be the result of being burned out on telling the story, but feels somewhat deeper than that). There are no easy answers to be dug out of the story regardless of the version of the events you choose to believe and film is all the more interesting for it. The known facts are so bizarre that anything could be possible, while the ambiguities suggest secrets that are hard to fathom.
Taking a cue from the great Errol Morris (and his followers like James Marsh, or schockly Unsolved Mysteries-style programming), Layton mixes interviews with gorgeously staged recreation footage. None of this material feels like it could possibly be documentary reality for a second, shot with the creeping cameras, stark shadows, and pounding musical accompaniment that would be suited to the material were Layton making the bizarre thriller this film could have easily been. The result is deeply cinematic, while also presenting all versions of the stories visually over the talking head narration. Layton probes his subjects with difficult questions without over becoming part of the movie himself. There’s no need for that. What may or may not have happened is fascinating on it’s own and Layton’s filmmaking detective work delves deeper into the tale than any version that has been told before. What actually is left for you to decide and all of the various theories are no less believable or intriguing that the others. Few films released this year are as entertaining or enticing as what Layton accomplished in The Imposter. It’s a film that has to be seen to be believed, well if you choose to believe any of it of course.