[This review was originally posted as part of our South by Southwest Film 2012 coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with its wider theatrical release.]
Everyone wants to believe in something. Sometimes, we try so hard that we feel a bit dumb in retrospect. The Imposter is a documentary about that, but more importantly it is a film that puts the viewer in the position of the dumbfounded.
As film-goers, we want to believe an interesting story. The more bizarre and true, the better. The Imposter is a tricky, manipulative film fully aware of audience expectations. It gives the audience exactly what it wants, while constantly shifting directions and tone.
By its end, I couldn’t help but smile at how well all parties have been duped, including myself.
Directors: Bart Layton
Release Date: TBA
Stop me if you heard this one before: A 14-year-old boy from a small Texas suburb disappears for three years only to appear in Spain, saying he was forced into a European human trafficking ring run by military soldiers. Also, this boy is actually a 23-year-old French man who bears no resemblance to the Texas child he is pretending to be. And yet, the media, authorities, and Texas family buy it.
Okay, so you probably haven’t heard that one before. Therein lies the hook to The Imposter. The setup and outcome is known from the outset, for the most part, so the interest is placed on how Frédéric Bourdin pulled off this incredible con.
“For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be someone else. Someone acceptable,” Bourdin tells the camera.
He is a charismatic, energetic man with a sweetness you wouldn’t expect from someone wanted by Interpol for most of his life. Despite convincing a grieving family that he is their missing son, he is very easy to sympathize with. Unlike other con men, he is not after a trust fund or position of power. He only wants to feel that thing he never had growing up: the love of a family. Or, so he says.
Like all good con men, Bourdin is an electric performer who could have been an actor in another life. He is at home in front of the camera, as he tells this bizarre story and re-enacts key moments with his voice. Director Bart Layton brilliantly contrasts this performance by recreating the scenes discussed (a la Man on Wire). Unlike the recreation-based documentaries that came before it, The Imposter creates a wonderful cohesion between the interview footage and the reenactments.
Layton doesn’t limit the recreation footage to filling a complimentary position. Instead, he often guides the story through them. Important story beats are struck within these moments, giving a grandiosity to the story that nullifies that “Oh, this needs to be made into a dramatic script”-feeling. The reenactments are wonderfully shot and performed. You really get the best of both worlds in The Imposter. On one hand, you have emotional interviews with the real people and, on the other, you have a well-paced, cinematic drama unfolding before you.
By the time the credits roll, it’s hard to imagine this story being told any other way. This story of a master imposter worming his way across the globe could be told in a dramatic feature film if smartly written and performed. What can’t be as easily recreated is explaining the family’s position in all of this.
Despite having a rugged French accent, the appearance of a grown man, the wrong hair color, and the wrong eye color, this simple, Texas family believe Bourdin is their 16-year-old son. It baffles the mind that they can look past all these issues that outside sources spot clear as day. In a fictional film, I’d think, “No way! This is just stupid! These people don’t exist!” But, here, we see them explain themselves or, at least, sit silently in shame. “The main goal was not to think,” the mother admits at one point. You don’t doubt it for a minute!
The Imposter is a much larger film than the synopsis and this review imply. There are other characters, subplots, details, and twists that are best not spoiled for audiences. Just know you are in for a wild ride. Bourdin is a fantastic subject with an odd story that Layton helps tell through unconventional recreation footage that shifts the tone, tension, and pace to great effect. The Imposter is a crowd-pleaser of a documentary. You’ll laugh at the subjects throughout and maybe even laugh at yourself afterward.