"Imposter" is right: for large periods in Bart Layton's new documentary you really have no idea who is taking you for a ride.
It could be Frédéric Bourdin, it could be his adopted family, it could even be Bart Layton: The idea that an Algerian French 23 year old in the western Pyrenees could even conceive of impersonating a missing Texan teenager (and a blond haired, blue eyed teenager at that), let alone get as far as America and even to survive in the boy's family for five months is so outlandish that I supposed at first it must be a spoof.
But, as usual, truth is stranger than fiction. Here there are plenty of competing truths to choose from, among them Layton's: the director knowingly hangs his documentary around a long interview with Bourdin, the titular imposter: surely the last person you'd ask if you wanted to get to the bottom of the story. Not that Bourdin is any less than thoroughly engaging and charismatic. His recounting of events is brilliant and fascinating, and Layton constructs his story in such a way to ensure there are no doubts: we are compelled. The means by which Bourdin constructed his plan is quite ingenious. It involved the misdirection of a magician and conjuring tricks that a neuro-linguistic programmer might be proud to call his own. I wonder what Derren Brown would make of it.
Bourdin's recollections are intercut with interviews with various members of the Barclay family and the American officials who handled Frederic's "repatriation". Now it would be easy to put this down to American idiocy. But it's simply too confounding for that: The degree of credulity required of so many people transcends individual incompetence and asks deeper questions of our operation as social organisms. Are we simply wired, biologically, to fall for this sort of thing? How else could anyone believe for a moment that a hirsuit, olive-skinned, heavily accented Mediterranean man might be a fair-skinned American boy?
Still, there's a marked tension in early sequences: we are presented with a likeable, engaging, mercurial man, whom we know to be the villain. His cuckolds are credulous back-country folk and gullible law enforcement agents for whom it is hard to have any sympathy beyond a patronising one for their stupidity. As we watch, this feels a cruel and unfair conclusion to draw.
Our unease is resolved midway through, by the introduction of local sleuth Charlie Parker. He's a gem: a San Antonio private dick, appointed by a TV network to look behind the story of how this wonderful miracle really happened. But for the fact he must be 80 years old, he could have stepped out of a Raymond Chandler novel. Charlie gets a whiff of something, and he's off.
This individual? Patrick Barclay? Charlie's having none of it.
In a diner, over a plate of egg and fries, he conspirationally reveals facts that no-one else seems to have noticed (but which are head-slappingly obvious to us): his eyes are a different colour! And his ears are a different shape! Charlie read somewhere that that's how they caught James Earl Ray, so he matches the ears on PhotoShop. Charlie's a hoot, and he steals the second act.
Parker is also the instrument by which Layton's drama takes a brilliant turn: Charlie forms an additional hypothesis, which also seems blindingly obvious on hindsight, but this time not even we have thought of it: the family must have known this was not their son. Why else would a mother knowingly take a cuckoo into her nest? Charlie smells a rat. We watch, and we really hope he's found one, just for Charlie's sake.
The Imposter is a superb piece of entertainment. It's beautifully photographed: every frame, even of the interview segments, is set up carefully and richly coloured, and cinematographers Lynda Hall and Erik Wilson capture both the beauty and the hokiness of midwest America crisply. If there's a false step it's in the payoff, which can't quite deliver on the promise of the set-up:
But real life has a habit of refusing to follow the script.