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Griffith Maloney [Celluloid 07.13.12] biography documentary


The Imposter has a subtle kind of magic to it. It makes you love the villain and root for his success. It holds you spellbound on the edge of your seat as it hangs each plot point just barely out of reach. Its unbelievable that this is a true story. Even better, it's not just "inspired by real events", it's a full blown documentary and its a damn good one.

When going about your daily life sometimes you have to tell a lie. Normally they're small ones, "the bus was running late", "I don't have any change to spare", "no that's not lipstick on my collar", the regular stuff. Usually you can shrug off these indiscretions and move on but occasionally things will get out of your control, you'll need to come up with more and more lies just to cover for that first little one. These fibs snowball into one another until your whole life is one lie after another, each outrageous falsehood compounding your bad choices up until this moment. That's how you get into trouble or in the case of director Bart Layton’s first feature, thats how you end up wanted by interpol.

Now in my life I've told some big lies. I mean ones that seemed big to me, you could call them "whoppers" if you had a colloquial bent. These "big" lies pale in comparison to the driving intrigue in The Imposter. In 1994 a 13 year old boy named Nicholas Barclay went missing from his home town in San Antonio Texas. Three years later he resurfaces in Spain and tells a story of being kidnapped by high level military officials, world wide conspiracies and torture. Clearly this boy has been through trauma, his formerly blond hair is more brownish and his formerly blue eyes are also brown and he doesn't really look like he's just 16 and he now speaks with a French accent and well, you get the idea... If the title wasn't enough of a tip-off, this isn't Nicholas, it's a French man by the name of Frederic Bourdin. Impish, charming, and eminently likable, Bourdin is the titular imposter and his lies manage to get him across the sea to the united states, snag him an official passport, and even get him enrolled in the local high school. For Bourdin lying is as commonplace as breathing.

There's a famous court case from the 16th century, which was turned into a terrific movie with Gerard Depardieu called The Return of Martin Guerre. In which a stranger impersonated a missing French villager for 3 years. Claiming to be the long lost Martin Guerre the stranger lived with Guerre's wife and interacted with the rest of the village as if he was the missing man. During the fake Guerre's trial the real Martin Guerre appeared and only served to confuse matters as neither man could adequately convince the jurors that they were the authentic Guerre. Now fooling a bunch of people in the 1500's is one thing but to the idea that anyone could successfully impersonate someone else in the modern age is nearly inconceivable. DNA evidence, fingerprints, high resolution photographs, the speed of modern communication, it's just baffling to think that someone can pretend to be someone else so thoroughly that the United States and Spanish governments were fooled.

Here our director makes the first of many good choices in this film. What's fascinating about the story of The Imposter isn't what happened. It's not the disappearance and suspense of the Nicholas Barclay case that's so compelling. In fact Layton is so unconcerned with preserving this twist that he gives away the secret in the title and reveals most of Bourdin's deception in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. Layton wants the heart of the film to be clear, Bourdin is a liar. So The Imposter becomes a documentary about the "How" and the "Why", an infinitely more satisfying subject than an exploration of the "What." How did Bourdin manage to hoodwink everyone? Why did this grieving Texas family take him in? As the audience is drawn deeper into the web of Bourdin's lies we start to question the honesty and credibility of all those involved. This film is about a bunch of big damn liars and it is a hell of a story.

The thread that holds this together is the impish grin of our French-Algerian conman. His sheer exuberance and charisma oozes from every line of his interview. It's no wonder people have continually been fooled by his charm. During the course of the film we spend a lot of time just listening to Bourdin talk about his choices and fears. In fact a good 75% of the entire movie is straight on interview footage with Bourdin or else reenactment footage with his narration of events. While on the surface this might seem to be a documentary about a crime, its really a story of a singular criminal. This keeps the film relatively simple in terms of its production. Straight shots dominate the interview sections and the scenes are mostly tight angles to emphasize the tension and paranoia of our Imposter.

Bourdin is a compelling subject and his story is a documentarians dream but it poses a serious film making problem. How do you maintain tension in a story that happened more then ten years ago? Very few documentaries can maintain the viewers interest through a set of continuous interviews. Layton chooses to rely on actor stand ins and reenactments. Some of it may be familiar to the late night television connoisseur. The dark-hallway reenactment shots and tear filled interviews could be torn straight from an episode of "Cold Case Files." In style and editing it doesn't vary dramatically from true crime TV specials. These tactics should come as a surprise to no one. Prior to The Imposter Bart Layton had only made TV documentaries and some of those techniques are very visible in the film. Specifically the editing work of Andrew Hulme and the score from Anne Nikitin seem like they would be more at home in a TV thriller or procedural. That's not to say that they are poor choices, just that they make the film feel like something other than a documentary ratcheting up our tension through quick cuts and music.

Layton has and will continue to receive criticism for his use of reenactment in this feature. It's a tough subject in the documentary world, one camp believing in the effectiveness of reenactment as a way to "enhance" the documentary experience. The other group thinking that reenactment is a deceptive and campy waste of the viewers time. Director Errol Morris stands firmly in the reenactments are useful tools camp and he has used them extensively since The Thin Blue Line in 1988. However while Morris' reenactments are directive, ie. they focus your attention onto a certain fact or object, Layton's reenactments are evocative, they serve to ramp up the emotional impact of the film. In this way they're incredibly effective but problematic. It's possible to mistake the reenactments as actual footage if you have no prior knowledge of the films subject but it would damage the emotive power of the scene to flash "reenactment" over the scenes the whole time.

It's important to recognize that Layton isn't trying to fool you. His film may be about liars but he isn't one. The best documentaries maintain an air of respect for the viewer and their subjects. They don't attempt to manipulate the audience but rather display a situation as honestly and completely as possible. Despite a few flaws, The Imposter is one of these documentaries. Mr. Layton has found a fascinating subject and he attempts to display the story with as little bias as possible. He mostly succeeds in balancing the tension building theatrics with an honest portrayal of his subject. This film wouldn't work half as well without the interview with Bourdin at its heart and it does suffer from "dramatic documentary" fatigue after a while. The extensive reenactments and Ms. Nikitin's thriller score can be grating in their TV tension building style. Those looking for the clean resolutions of Hollywood will be disappointed, The Imposter is a character portrait and in displaying the mad genius of Frederic Bourdin it raises more questions than it answers. There is no locked room reveal in this mystery. Bart Layton's first film is a reminder of just how big lies can get and just how lovable liars sometimes are. It's a strong documentary about an amazing subject and its handled well enough to merit a watch. So what if some of the scenes aren't real footage, they feel true and isn't that what matters?

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