Saturday 25 August 2012

The lost boys: "The Imposter"

Bart Layton's documentary The Imposter concerns two crimes of opportunity: one that went to trial and resulted in one of the film's participants serving jail time, the other that remains unsolved to this day, haunting the film and the behaviour of all those who appear in it. In 1994, floppy-haired blonde teenager Nicholas Barclay went missing from his home in San Antonio, Texas. Three years later, a young man claiming to be Barclay turned up in Spain. What happened in between those dates, and subsequent to this, forms the basis of a wicked piece of storytelling, and one of those you-couldn't-make-it-up tales any responsible review should really preface with a substantial spoiler alert: I'm again tempted to flag this as an instance where you may be better off experiencing a film's myriad twists and turns cold, and coming back to any commentary at a later juncture. Let this recommendation suffice for the time being: The Imposter may be the most clear-eyed and engrossing documentary study of human dysfunction since Andrew Jarecki's remarkable Capturing the Friedmans.

For those inclined to read on: suffice to say this new Nick was not whom he claimed to be, rather a crop-haired, dark-skinned, heavily accented Frenchman known, among many aliases, as Frédéric Bourdin, here recast as the narrator of his own tale. Even allowing for the vagaries of time and the psychosexual trauma Bourdin-Barclay claimed to have been subjected to during his time in absentia, the imposter resembled Nicholas only about as much as your reviewer does Antonio Banderas, as local TV footage of the supposedly joyous mother-and-child reunion makes abundantly clear. How Bourdin arrived in the United States in the first place is an audacity best left to the film to describe; the real kicker here is how Nicholas's clan were only too willing to take this surrogate in as their own, at which point we twig that, somewhere close to the thematic centre of The Imposter, sits raw, desperate, despairing need.

On one side, we observe this fractious family - some named Barclay, some Dollarhide, some Gibson; Layton further atomises them in interviewing them all separately - with their need to convince themselves that Nicholas had indeed returned to fill the hole that had opened up in their lives with his disappearance. On the other, there is Bourdin himself: mixed-race son of an absent Algerian immigrant, thrown out into the world at an early age, with his born outsider's desire to find a place there, and his frantic accumulation of pseudonyms, deployed as keys in the ongoing search for a way out of the disappointing life he'd been handed. Bourdin's countryman Jean Renoir, in La Règle du jeu, once evinced that everyone has their reasons; The Imposter is an extreme, late twentieth-century demonstration of that very thesis.

I've seen Layton's film twice now, and both times a peculiar form of cognitive dissonance has kicked in. As much as one may want to loathe Bourdin for exploiting this family's grief - grief still all too evident in the lines and creases teartracks have eroded into these faces - it is (just) possible to like, or at least admire him, too: his boldness, his pluck, his determination to improve his own standing. He's like a terrible actor who can't believe he's finally pulled the wool over everybody's eyes - Channing Tatum with a Maurice Chevalier accent - and his mounting fear upon first meeting his hosts, and his stated excitement at arriving at the kind of high school he'd only seen in the movies, turns the film into a thrillingly warped take on the American dream. What was Frédéric Bourdin, after all, if not the migrant who travelled to the United States in the hope of making a new and better life for himself?

Similarly, while your heart can't fail to go out to the family, there is something, well, a bit iffy about the manner in which they continued to throw their arms around this non-Nick in the face of official scepticism, and came to corroborate their new houseguest's alibi. When Nick's sister Carey Gibson remembers how surprised she was to learn that Coca-Cola was available in Spain, it's a glimpse into the lack of worldliness this clan were possessed of, and one which explains why they were only too willing to buy into new-Nick's credibility-testing cover story that he'd been kidnapped and sold into a military sex cult. Just as Bourdin had a vision of America, all cheerleaders and bright yellow buses, the Barclay-Gibson-Dollarhides surely had their own vision of "over there" as the kind of place where fruity Europeans pay top dollar for the sexual services of blue-eyed, blonde-haired, all-American boys. How easily we delude ourselves, and are deluded in turn.

This is a narrative full of coincidences, lapses, holes - conflicting accounts of the same event, institutional gaffes that suggest flaws with the hallowed American system of checks and balances, even the gap teeth that were the one thing Bourdin had in common with Barclay, and which apparently sealed the deal in certain minds - and Layton, to his credit, is wise enough to know just how tightly it needs to be stitched together, in order to avoid utter disbelief on the part of the audience. The Imposter is, in some sense, an imposter itself, pulling off a skilful impersonation of James Marsh's impersonations of Errol Morris in offering up a sustained flow of archive material, testimony, reconstructions that further blur the line between truth and subjectivity (by, for example, casting Bourdin as other characters) and superbly atmospheric location work.

The film has a heightened, inbuilt narrative tension - when's this guy going to get found out? - yet its final act goes in a completely unexpected direction, taking some of the suspicion off Bourdin's shoulders and placing it somewhere else entirely. Even here, we cannot be sure who to believe: is this new suspicion another of Bourdin's paranoid fabulations? Or: if you tell enough lies, might you be right every once in a while? Unlike Morris in his landmark crime documentary The Thin Blue Line, Layton isn't interested in providing closure, or in laying any ghosts to rest. In the concluding moments of The Imposter, we rejoin a couple of investigators with shovels, still apparently digging after all this time. What they come to turn up is the film's trump card, and best kept unspoilt, but it might legitimately be summarised thus: nothing and everything. Or: one more hole that needs filling.

The Imposter is on selected release.

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