MOVIE: The Imposter (2012)

imposterThis incredible documentary tells the story of a 23 year-old Frenchman named Frederic Bourdin, who, in 1997, posed as a 16 year-old boy named Nicholas Barclay who had disappeared from San Antonio, Texas 3 years before, and got away with it for an astonishingly long period of time.

The story is told through a series of reenactments (not my favorite thing, but done very, very well here) coupled with interviews with family members of the real Nicholas, whose desperate wish to find their lost loved one led to an almost unbelievable blindness to reality, and Bourdin himself, an extremely mentally ill young man with a lengthy history of identity theft.

Both sides of the story are fascinating peeks into the intricacies of human psychology.  Bourdin was homeless in Spain as the story opens, and decided the best way to get food and shelter for himself was to pretend to be a traumatized child, in the hopes the local authorities would take him in and plop him into the system.

Once in custody, though, it became clear they were going to run his prints if he didn’t give up some kind of identity for them.  Knowing the game would be over the second they did because of his criminal history, Bourdin talks the cops into leaving him along in an office all night, ostensibly so he can collect himself and then call his parents.  As soon as he gets private access to a telephone, he begins making a series of calls to missing persons agencies, posing as a cop who has found a lost child.  Eventually, he ends up connected to the authorities in Texas, who fax over information and a blurry black and white photo of a little boy named Nicholas, who had disappeared at the age of 13 in San Antonio.

As soon as Bourdin gives the Spanish cops Nicholas’s name, the dominoes begin to fall.  The next thing Bourdin knows, he’s hours away from being reunited with his “sister,” who had jumped on a plane the second the authorities had contacted her mother.  The problem?  Bourdin is a dark-haired, dark-eyed, dark-complexioned young man.  And Nicholas?  A blond, blue-eyed Caucasian.  Desperate to keep the ruse going long enough to make it to the U.S., Bourdin dyes his hair (which, bizarrely, none of the cops seem to notice), and invents an elaborate story about a child sex ring that also involved torture in the form of chemical injections to his eyes — which must surely explain the fact they’ve changed color.  Despite how absolutely crackers that sounds, everybody is so blown away to have found the missing Barclay boy that not a single one fails to take Bourdin at his word.

What happens next is even more mind-blowing, as Bourdin returns to Texas with his “sister” and is immediately embraced by the entire family with no hesitation whatsoever.  It’s not until a local PI catches the story on the news and gets suspicious when he sees Bourdin’s photo next to Nicholas’s, that anyone starts to ask any questions (like, for example, “How did our blond, blue-eyed all-American boy turn into a dark-skinned guy with a thick French accent?”  BECAUSE HE HAS A THICK FRENCH ACCENT, FOR PITY’S SAKE!).

From there, the story takes an even crazier turn, believe it or not, and what’s truly bananas about this film’s final twist is that *I* got sucked into believing it at first — Bourdin is THAT GOOD.

And that’s when I started to think about just how incredible all the psychological elements of this whole story truly are.  Not just the family so desperate to find their lost child they can’t see what’s right in front of them, or even the imposter’s incredible ability to justify his evil-genius-style manipulations to himself (a lot of reviews of this film describe Bourdin as a sociopath, but he’s really more a narcissist, in my extremely unlearned opinion), but also my own desire to believe the family couldn’t possibly have been that blind.  That they had to be up to something.  That there was no way a mother wouldn’t know her own son. Even though, really, it makes perfect, human sense the family would react the way they did.  Of course they would.  Of course a mother wouldn’t want to look too closely, to see too much, to risk her boy still being gone.  Of course she wouldn’t.  Of course she would, instead, just close her eyes and BELIEVE.

This film was mesmerizing — I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.  If it had been fiction, I would be ridiculing its absolute absurdity right now, it’s that unfathomable.  But instead, this is an extraordinary true story, which somehow manages to make it seem that much more fantastical.

Highly, highly recommended, though the fact the movie ends with more mystery about what truly happened to Nicholas instead of less is so heart-breaking it may make this film difficult to watch for parents.  If you, like me, are fascinated by the myriad complexities of the human mind, though, this is an absolute must-see.

Update (3/4/2013):  After posting this review on Facebook, a friend shared a link to a fascinating 2008 article from the New Yorker about Bourdin — it now has me back to believing the movie’s “twist” may be true after all!   WHOA, DAWGS.  It also tells some more amazing stories about the cons Bourdin was able to pull off — including another whopper of an identity theft AFTER the one described in this film!  Way to go, Interpol!  The article definitely has lots of spoilers in it, so read it after you’ve seen the documentary if you don’t want anything wrecked for you.

[Netflix it (available for streaming) | Buy it]

Genre:  Documentary
Directed by: Bart Layton


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