' Cinema Romantico: The Imposter

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Imposter

An apparent teenager is slumped in a phone booth in the rain in Spain. He is collected by the authorities. At first he is incommunicado but eventually explains he is a missing teenager from America named Nicholas Barclay. Barclay’s family in San Antonio is contacted and his sister Carey makes the transatlantic journey to claim him. Despite minor suspicions, he is granted a passport and winds up back home. But is it his home? Is he Nicholas Barclay?


He is not, as the title makes clear, and even if the title did not make it clear the true nature of the story is revealed right away (it was also made into a feature film and was the basis of a New Yorker article). The boy posing as sixteen year old Nicholas Barclay is a twenty-three old man named Frédéric Bourdin, a chameleon, who, as the film reveals, is wanted by Interpol for routinely adopting the personality of make-believe teenagers. His role play as Nicholas Barclay, however, is his most risky grift yet, for rather than inventing someone out of thin air he will actually attempt to assume another person’s identity.

Much of the film is Bourdin looking directly into the camera, staring us in the eye, and re-selling his story. He possesses the charisma to rope you in, to make you genuinely believe that he is homeless with a helpless mother and that this unconventional immigration to America might just be his last best shot. And the family of Nicholas Barclay, it seems, believes as strongly as we do.

Carey vouches for him which is how he manages to get through a hesitant customs in the first place. Once home, they let him right in. The mother, Beverly, and the brother-in-law as well as Carey seem less than wary of the readily apparent dissimilarities between Old Nicholas and New Nicholas and instead focus squarely on the few similarities they do notice. If his behavior turns erratic, they dismiss it as a product of his overseas experience, fabricated by Bourdin into a gothic novel of a paramilitary sex slave operation.

It is nigh impossible to watch these passages without considering the recent saga of American football player Manti Te’o and his supposedly being duped by a so-called Catfish scheme into falling in love with a girl he only knew online and over the phone (and who, as it turned out, did not exist). In the wake of this non-scandal the “charge” levied against Te’o by sportswriters and internet commenters was essentially “How could he know she wasn’t real?” “The Imposter” offers plain proof to aid Te’o’s defense. When placed in a situation where one wants to believe, one can easily trick him or herself into believing. To deny this truth is to fall victim to The Plane Is About To Crash Into The Mountain Syndrome (which stipulates that when watching movie characters on a plane that is about to crash into a mountain from the comfort of your couch it is much easier to criticize them for faulty decision making then it would be if you were actually, you know, ON THAT PLANE).


But wait! Is the Barclay family tricking itself into believing this man with the French accent is their Texan come home? Or are they attempting to trick everyone else? Although director Bart Layton unfortunately chooses to try and pump up his otherwise gripping film with a plethora of re-enactments, as if he wants this doc to play more like a straight drama, his decision to structure the narrative linearly essentially turns the audience into the conned. We are made to believe what Bourdin is telling us because he so convincing and, at the same time, we are made to believe what the Barclay family is telling us even if it all seems so unbelievable.

But as we wade in deeper and more secrets are revealed, the more we realize who we thought everyone was and why everything was happening the way it was might not be true at all. In the wake of the revelations that the much admired “Searching For Sugar Man” may have been less than forthright with its whole story, “The Imposter” becomes even more vital. It looks us squarely in the eye and asks: What do you believe?

My answer: Uh, I have no idea.

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