The Imposter, Bart Layton

The Imposter, a critically acclaimed new documentary, sets itself up as an investigation, looking into the story of a master impersonator. Frédéric Bourdin, a Frenchman of Algerian background, was 23 when he successfully passed himself off as a missing 16-year old from Texas. Despite having an accent in English, brown eyes instead of blue, and little memory of his supposed former life in the US, the young man was welcomed back by his ‘family’ with great emotion.

You’ll hear this film compared to Catfish (2010) and the work of legendary documentarist Errol Morris, but The Imposter is by no means derivative of either: it forges its own path, in terms of both style and narration. Like Morris, director Bart Layton adds variety to his film’s interview format by dramatic interpretations of the characters’ stories: but where Morris adopted a forensic lens in Thin Blue Line or a satirical one in Tabloid, Layton’s re-enactments have the appearance of a crime thriller, with a noirish graphic novel flavour. Layton’s camera comes closer to the interviewees, as if to overcome Morris’s critical distance. By comparison with Catfish, which makes the audience feel a little dirty at the end of it, as though it has revealed too much about the inner life of a character we don’t want to know, The Imposter could be accused of revealing too little. While the film’s open-endedness offers the soothing possibility that people are just strange rather than cruel, it may also leave the audience feeling a little frustrated, or even cheated.

This leads to the other significant difference between The Imposter and either Catfish or Errol Morris: while the latter pursue their own original investigations, The Imposter essentially creates a compelling scrapbook of existing facts. Certainly, the way it presents these facts is utterly gripping: it has been a long time since I’ve seen a fiction film, let alone a documentary, where I was so desperate to know what would happen next. At base, it is little more than popular entertainment, somewhat at odds with the film’s art cinema billing. If The Imposter were a novel, it would be a page turner. That said, the film’s open ending seems to mark it out as something less conventional. Is the director trying to be thought-provoking, or is he admitting that his investigation came to a dead end? There was room for doubt in The Thin Blue Line too, but Errol Morris nonetheless found the line between truth and lies and whittled it down to a razor’s edge.

In The Imposter, there are a couple of moments where it feels like the film is about to do something unfamiliar, revolutionary even: either making a groundbreaking contribution to the investigation, or turning the tables on the audience completely. Ultimately, though, the film fails to deliver on either of these suggestions.

At the beginning of the film, the audience starts to wonder if the director is going to drop a bombshell on his interviewees: if the missing boy’s family know that Frédéric Bourdin is an imposter, how can they speak so calmly about what happened, without any bitterness of hindsight? The audience is already on tenterhooks to find out how Bourdin manages to fool both the family and the authorities, and how he will ultimately be found out: the tension becomes even greater when the audience thinks the family might only find out the truth because of this film.

From the beginning, The Imposter appears to conform to a now-familiar documentary trope of showcasing Americans who are at best naive and at worst plain stupid. About halfway through, as the investigation probes further into the family’s attitudes, there is the suggestion that it is the audience who has been naive, while the family may be far more canny than they appear. This is only one of the possibilities the film presents, though: ultimately, the film is incapable of discovering the truth behind each family member’s opaque facade. Aside from the disappointment of never knowing what really happened to the missing boy, the audience may be disappointed that the human psyche also remains a mystery. Is the imposter really psychologically disturbed, in spite of appearing to give the most truthful, rational and sensible account of events? And is the family telling the truth, or lying, and if they are lying, is it deliberately or because they can’t help it? If the film’s open-endedness is the director’s statement, rather than an admission of investigative failure, then the film arguably reveals to us two troubling things about public and private investigations: first, that the truth may always remain tantalisingly out of reach, but even more disturbing, that the people in charge of finding out that truth may not be up to the job.

Text: Alison Frank

The Imposter, Bart Layton. In Theatres Now.