The facts are few and straightforward. On June 13th, 1994, in a San Antonio, Texas, suburb, blond-haired, blue-eyed, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay did not return home. Three years later, the Barclay family received a call from authorities in Madrid, Spain, reporting that they had Nicholas in custody, an escapee from the abuse of a sex trafficking ring. This individual had brown hair and brown eyes, was 23 years old, and spoke with a heavy French accent. The Barclay family embraced him and verified that he was, indeed, Nicholas. In fact, he is Frédéric Bourdin, born 1974, a man who has impersonated others.
In a style reminiscent of Errol Morris’s, The Imposter presents its narrative through atmospherically lit reenactments by actors while the voices of the principals guide the action, including Nicholas’ mother, sister, and, most astonishingly Bourdin himself. The story involves the FBI, the US Embassy in Madrid, the media, a private investigator, and more.
Even though I had read David Grann’s 2008 New Yorker article about Bourdin, as The Imposter unfolded over its 95 minutes, I still found it difficult to believe the mind-boggling events and assertions. It didn’t take long at all for my attitude to shift to not wanting to believe the sad, even tragic story of the family’s insistence that this con man is their missing Nicholas. Do they want to believe so badly? Was there foul play? How could Bourdin sit on camera and so fully recount his actions and manipulations—what he calls his brainwashing.
Along with other recent films recounting incredible stories and probing disturbing human psychology (notably Searching for Sugar Man the former, Compliance the latter), I have to conclude that not only is fact much stranger than fiction, it’s also much more engrossing. The Imposter is provocative, haunting, and effectively presented. At a Landmark Theatre.