Tuesday, 28 August 2012

FILM REVIEW: The Imposter

**spoilers ahead for those uninformed**

The marketing team behind this year’s biggest documentary (“it’s the new Catfish!”) are bloody brilliant at what they do. When The Imposter premiered at Sundance earlier this year, despite solid reviews it did little to stand out amongst the bigger names such as Beasts of the Southern Wild and top documentary winners Searching for Sugarman and The Queen of Versailles, both of which have been released in the UK in the last few months to modest applause. But the lead up to The Imposter’s release date in the last month has been immense, largely thanks to the entire cinema industry lauding it as one of the year’s best films and the enigma which began to surround it – you’re best off going in not knowing anything about it was it’s unofficial tagline. As prime target of this marketing, I was swept up in the wave of excitement and did my best to avoid the trailer as much as I could and anything written about it at all. So hyped up I was that I went to see it on its opening day of release on Friday, intrigued to find out the secrets to the story and also because I am desperate for my first 5 cheese film of the year, and I thought this would be it. Sadly it didn’t quite live up to the sky high expectations, but it was an astonishing watch, and will undoubtedly be the best documentary you will see all year. British, too!

Despite wanting to remain ignorant about events, the film does not try to cover your eyes – within the first few minutes of meeting the imposter of the title – Frenchman Frederic Bourdin – he tells his side of the story from his point of view. 13 year old blond haired and blue eyed Nicholas Barclay goes missing from a Texas town in 1994, and his family fail to hear from him again. Four years later in a small town in Spain, Bourdin poses as a homeless teenager and being pressed by the authorities into giving an identity, he impulsively picks the first option Missing Childrens Services offer him – that of Nicholas Barclay. He would be 17 years old now – yet Bourdin is 23, has a French accent, dark hair and brown eyes, and a moment of haste suddenly becomes a huge lie he must now assume. Terrified the family will reject his appearance, he does all he can to become the image of the 17 year old missing American, from dying his hair blond, to getting matching tattoos, to later down the line fabricating a story of his abuse at the hands of a military run child exploitation ring who put solution in his eyes which changed them from blue to brown. His anxiety – and then surprise – of convincing the family and subsequently the US Embassy and FBI is imparted in his narration, and at this point we are as incredulous as he is. But of course, all is not right here – especially when his lie starts to become unravelled and he makes a staggering allegation: the family have accepted him as Nicholas to cover up the fact that they know what happened to him – they killed him and hid his body.

The narrative and structure of the film is very clever indeed - loved how it was all told in the present as well, allowing the narrative to switch tone very fluidly. Because you cannot believe these people were brainwashed into believing that this person is Nicholas and a member of their family, when the idea comes up that there is a sinister edge to this - that maybe they know this isn't the truth, but it's a cover for the grisly nature of what really happened - you as a viewer are being coerced into believing the story. It's seductively devious, the personality of Frederic Bourdin; it's as much his story as it is the family's. When Nicholas’s sister is showing Bourdin family photos and telling him "you must remember her and him and this and that" you start thinking, oh my god, she knows what he's doing here is deceitful and immoral (not to mention illegal), but she is helping him to live the lie because she has her own secrets to hide. And so you start thinking this is real, this is going to be the big “twist”. Nicholas’ brother, whom he had a troubled relationship with, isn't there to give interviews, so is the big reveal going to be that he killed Nicholas and is now in jail and that's why he doesn't appear on film? But as soon as you’ve been fed the clues to join the dots in your head, the trail goes cold. Nicholas’s brother is not there because he died of a drugs overdose and bam – you’ve been fooled yourself.

There is no killer twist to the story – the ending is left deliberately open ended with plenty of room for debate. Are the authorities so desperate they are willing to believe anything, and is this a family brilliantly covering their tracks or victims, not just of a bereavement but of being masterly duped in their own vulnerability? I was faintly disappointed Bourdin’s claim was left at just that, a claim. I wanted to leave with my jaw on the floor, but instead you have to make your own mind up about what happened. And I can’t help but think if the family have something to hide, why would they allow Bart Layton and his crew to make a whole documentary about their torment and allow the audience to scrutinize them so?

This is such a surreal case that the minds of the people involved have been so stretched and manipulated that they're willing to commit to the most outlandish of theories and statements: this story is so twisted and bizarre that maybe there is some truth in Bourdin’s claims – the FBI detective and private investigator are willing to believe literally anything. The latter was a right character, very old school with some brilliant one liners about hot cakes, and “she kept wondering why I kept going on about ears”. He really wanted to be at the centre of an amazing discovery, a nationwide scoop – of course when he starts digging up gardens to find Nicholas’s remains we know it’s not going to come to anything. This was part of several staged moments in the documentary that I was less keen on, and the choice of incidental music at times verged on melodramatic cable crime channel.

There’s no doubt Bourdin is one hell of a crazy character. He is the ultimate unreliable narrator, and the ultimate manipulator. The meticulous and daring story he tells of assuming this missing child's identity and being terrified of being found out is so believable, it's astonishing to discover at the end that he has done this tens of times before. It's a routine for him, not some wild decision. (We did have a chuckle when they were reeling off all his previous identities and one of them surely sounded like "Jimmy Saville....") The way he pretends to be several people/witnesses involved in his case as well is just incredible. He is sentenced at the end to fraudulently obtaining a passport and perjury, but it's never disclosed whether he received any psychiatric treatment for his condition. Questions remain: why didn’t he run away once he got to America (he seems disappointed rural Texas is not the American dream)? Is he genuine when he says all he wants is a family to love and accept him, and just do normal things? Or is this all a game to him? He seemed very keen that the media knew who he was and his story, but this is what ended his impersonation. He has the air of being a professional actor, whereas in reality he is a charlatan and a pathological liar. Clearly a remarkably strange individual, and the perfect subject for a documentary.

The Imposter is every bit as thrilling and mind boggling as the critics have made it out to be – go with friends and ponder it for yourselves afterward. But on reflection, its sensation is only fleeting.

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