The great pre­tender

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

BART LAY­TON’S The Im­poster has an un­likely story to tell. “We had a Q&A af­ter a screening and some­body put up their hand and asked if the film was based on a true story,” he says, still slightly in­cred­u­lous. “They’d just watched a doc­u­men­tary, al­beit a strange one. There have been sev­eral re­ac­tions like that.”

This is not al­to­gether as­ton­ish­ing. Long be­fore the film hits a nar­ra­tive hair­pin in its fi­nal act, The Im­poster breaks new ground in the field of cre­ative im­plau­si­bil­ity. Yet, the facts stack up. Lay­ton is – so far as he’s able – telling us the truth.

In 1997, a fam­ily from San An­to­nio, Texas, re­ceived some stun­ning news. A young man had turned up in Spain claim­ing to be the miss­ing teenager Ni­cholas Bar­clay, for whom they had been search­ing since 1994. As the film’s ti­tle makes clear, Lay­ton makes no at­tempt to hold back the in­for­ma­tion that we are deal­ing with a bizarre hoax. He could hardly have done oth­er­wise. Frédéric Bour­din was a grown man with brown eyes and a pro­nounced French ac­cent. Ni­cholas had blonde hair and blue eyes. Yet Bour­din some­how man­aged to live with the fam­ily for a full five months be­fore be­ing ex­posed.

How on earth did he pull it off? Is this a story of the way oth­er­wise alert hu­mans can mould per­cep­tions to sat­isfy their deep­est long­ings?

“I think the big ques­tion that the film poses is about that des­per­ate need to cre­ate a truth that suits you bet­ter than re­al­ity,” Lay­ton agrees.

The film spends a great deal of time with Carey Gib­son, Ni­cholas’s de­ter­mined sis­ter, and de­picts her as an hon­est per­son with no se­crets to hide. Yet, she some­how man­ages to be­lieve the un­be­liev­able.

“I think that’s right. I be­lieved the story she told, which is one of dis­com­bob­u­la­tion. She flies to Europe. She’s con­fused. She’s never left the coun­try. Her first thought is: ‘He looks like our Un­cle Pat.’ I hope when you’re watch­ing the film, you’re not think­ing: how could you be so stupid? You are, I hope, think­ing: you poor woman; you are blind­ing your­self to the truth.”

It tran­spired that Bour­din was a se­rial im­poster nick­named The Chameleon by the au­thor­i­ties. Of Al­ge­rian and French parent­age, he seems (so lit­tle is cer­tain) to have been raised in a chil­dren’s home and to have suf­fered sig­nif­i­cant de­grees of abuse when young. Over a 15-year pe­riod, he as­sumed dozens of false iden­ti­ties and had a par­tic­u­lar en­thu­si­asm for adopt­ing the per­sonae of miss­ing chil­dren. His­mo­ti­va­tions are still un­clear, but he seemed in search of ac­cep­tance rather than mone­tary gain.

In­ter­viewed at length in The Im­poster, Bour­din – who looks like a rougher Joaquin Phoenix – comes across as fiercely smart, end­lessly slip­pery and queasily charm­ing.

“For some­body who’s not very trust­wor­thy, he’s also not very trust­ing,” Lay­ton, a chatty, ar­tic­u­late Lon­doner, ex­plains with a sigh. “He is in­cred­i­bly cir­cum­spect. He does mas­sive re­search on any­body he meets. We wrote to him via his YouTube page. When I met him, he went to great lengths to demon­strate how much he knew about me per­son­ally. It is never straight­for­ward deal­ing with him. He is de­spi­ca­ble in many ways. But he can be charm­ing.”

The film is end­lessly grip­ping, con­stantly sur­pris­ing and just a lit­tle bit slip­pery. Lay­ton is forced to tell much of the story through Bour­dain’s tes­ti­mony. The trick­ster asks us to be­lieve that – af­ter he trolled for a sub­sti­tute iden­tity and hap­pened upon Bar­clay – the sit­u­a­tion steadily es­ca­lated un­til, al­most by ac­ci­dent, he found him­self on a plane to Texas.

As the film pro­gresses, he be­gins to out­line a sub­plot that puts an en­tirely un­ex­pected and dis­turb­ing spin on the yarn. But hang on. Are we be­ing asked to be­lieve some­body whose en­tire life is de­fined by lies?

“Well, I think you’ve iden­ti­fied some­thing that is right at the heart of the film,” Lay­ton says. “One of the big re­al­i­sa­tions for me was that, as I heard his story, I be­gan to un­der­stand his own twisted logic. He had his child­hood stolen from him. He was look­ing for a fam­ily. But the mo­ment you re­alise you’re buy­ing it is the mo­ment you re­alise you are fall­ing for the ma­nip­u­la­tion. Can I put the au­di­ence di­rectly at the re­ceiv­ing end of the con­man?”

The fam­ily does at least have some emo­tional jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for be­liev­ing in Bour­dain. The US au­thor­i­ties had no such ex­cuse. Among the odd­est mo­ments in a very odd film comes when an FBI agent, hith­erto sus­pi­cious, re­lates a con­ver­sa­tion in which Bour­dain ex­plained how the mil­i­tary

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.