For the record, I’d just like to point out that despite what the campaign for The Imposter would have you believe, truth can never be stranger than fiction, because fiction can have dragons and shit in it. Nevertheless, the story behind this year’s most attention-grabbing documentary is pretty mad, and it’s this: in 1993, a 13 year-old, blonde, blue-eyed boy called Nicholas Barclay went missing from his home in Texas; 4 years later, a 23 year-old, brown-eyed, brown-haired Frenchman named Frederic Bourdin who had been picked up by authorities in Spain managed to successfully convince Barclay’s entire family that he was their lost child.
British filmmaker Bart Layton had originally set out just to research Bourdin—a self-confessed serial con-man who is now, hilariously, using his Twitter feed to slam the film, and vent his frustration at being made out as a liar (after supplying Layton with a lengthy and detailed description of his, um, lies)—when he heard about the Frenchman’s bizarre Texan sojourn and realised he’d struck documentary gold. And credit to the director, who hasn’t merely settled for the sheer craziness of the story but has crafted a compelling montage of interviews with Bourdin, members of the Barclay family, FBI investigators, and a private detective, intercut with slick reconstructions that mesh together in a helter-skelter headfuck of disturbing revelations.
If Layton was excited when he discovered the story, he must have been psyched when he met its US cast. The Barclay clan are American Gothic writ large—a bunch of drawling Deep South grotesques so brilliantly stereotypical that when murky theories about the truth behind their doe-eyed gullibility in accepting Bourdin as Nicholas begin to surface deep into the film, it’s a struggle not to immediately believe the worst. But the star of the show is private detective Charlie Parker, who is basically Johnny Cash if he’d fought off old age, packed in the music and dedicated his life to investigating unsolved murders. One of the highlights of The Imposter is seeing Parker excitedly recount the small meltdown he had when, after being hired by a local TV network to look into Nicholas Barclay’s apparent return, he realised upon inspection that Bourdin’s ears weren’t those of the missing boy, and thought he’d sleuthed his way into the capture of a terrorist spy. Bless.
This blurriness between the reality of what happened and the pure, straight-out-of-a-movie absurdity of it all is what gives The Imposter a really fascinating dimension. It’s as if the subjects of the film conform so perfectly to a caricature of small-town southern America born on TV and cinema screens that those are the only terms on which we can engage with them—not just, as Layton remarked of Parker at a recent Q&A screening, that he belongs in a Coen brothers film, but that he belongs in one more than he belongs in reality.
Because the fact is that the real Nicholas Barclay is still missing, and, let’s face it, he probably isn’t hanging out somewhere safe and well with Madeleine McCann. Yet despite that, and despite the insidiousness, deceit and accusations of foul-play that the film unearths, The Imposter is, to a significant (and perhaps troubling) extent, hysterically funny. Parker’s animated rambling about ears aside, the various Barclays are full of one-liners that wouldn’t be out of place on a George W. Bush blooper-reel, while Bourdin grins gleefully as he narrates the increasingly ridiculous sequence of events he had found himself in.
In response to a question about exploitation, Layton argued earnestly at said screening that he’d tried to deal with the subject matter as sensitively as possible, that he hadn’t intended any humour, and that when the film premiered at Sundance he was surprised at how much the audience laughed. But he said this to an audience who’d also just spent much of the last 90 minutes laughing at the same film, apparently blasé about the fact that the subject of their laughter was a lost kid who is most likely dead. Which is kind of appalling, but also kind of amazing just for showing how willing audiences are to divorce events from reality, and to read real-life tragedy as entertaining black comedy.
Layton seemed fairly despondent about the fact that people find his film funny, but a) if he can’t figure out a way to edit his footage together in a more sensitive way (i.e. not including the bit where Nicholas’ sister makes some dumb-ass comment about not knowing where Spain is, lolz) then he’s not a very good filmmaker, and b) maybe he deserves to feel despondent. Because maybe that’s what you get, as a documentarian, for collecting up all the ambiguities, conflicting accounts and speculation over a real event, parcelling it up into a convenient (not to say uncompelling) narrative, putting it on a screen under the auspices of entertainment, and naively trusting that the facts won’t be abused by audiences looking for a cheap thrill, that the complexities of the story won’t be ironed out and lost in the process. You get laughed at.
But that’s exactly what makes The Imposter such an astounding cinematic experience. Not only do you get the batshit insanity of Bourdin’s hoax, you get to witness the almost complete overlap of reality and entertainment—to sit in a room full of people for whom, as if in some Baudrillardian dystopia, a real dead child is no more tragic than a fictional one. And, hopefully, for humanity’s sake, that’s something you won’t get from too many films this year.
The Imposter is out Friday 24 August.