Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Imposter

The Imposter, a deftly crafted and often tongue-in-cheek documentary by Bart Layton, unravels one of those stories too bizarre to be anything other than true. A 13-year-old Texas boy goes missing in 1993, only to show up four years later in Spain, claming to be the victim of a military-run international sex slavery ring. Overjoyed at the boy’s return, the family welcomes the shell-shocked youth, despite a few nagging discrepancies, such as brown eyes in the place of blue and a French accent instead of a Texas drawl. Lie upon lie mounts into a wobbling tower of deceptions. The child is revealed to be a 23-year-old French conman named Frederic Bourdin, who by all accounts is a pathological liar and smiling sociopath with a fondness for assuming the identities of abused and orphaned children. Unwilling to accept that his fraud has been revealed, Bourdin fights back with a new lie to cover the old, accusing his false family of an even more horrendous crime. After all, why would a family willingly pretend a stranger was their own kin unless they had something of their own to hide?

Rationalization is a powerful drug, and everyone in the film is a full-blown junky, from the grieving family to the hoodwinked FBI agent and even Bourdin himself, whose incredulous description of his own actions suggests he has never fully grasped how much pain he has caused (or equally likely, just doesn’t care). Everyone has a lie to tell, but more importantly, everyone has a lie to believe. Through unnerving editing tricks—Bourdin’s body language during an interview is intercut with similar movements during a recreation of events—Layton implicates his subjects in the creation of a past that was never what it seemed. This is all just a story they’ve told themselves over and over again, and it’s a whopper. No wonder the defunct television tabloid Hard Copy once planned to do a piece on the boy’s miraculous return. The lie is as compelling as it is unbelievable, its power increasing as it grows more absurd. Most shocking of all, Bourdin’s deceptions live on to this day. The film ends with a private investigator digging up a backyard in search of a body he’ll never find, the camera craning upwards in what is either an over-hyped dramatic reveal or parody of same. One supposes the next stop on this ludicrous corpse-finding tour will be Al Capone’s vault.

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