From Zelig to Tom Ripley or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the chameleon-like ability of con-men and imposters to pass themselves off for someone other than who they are has a lasting fascination in film and fiction, not least because it throws into relief the specious basis on which our social and human judgements are made.
Real life has generously provided us with a motley crew of career imposters, perhaps the most intriguing recent example of which is the Frenchman Christophe Rocancourt (born 1967) who, in France and the USA, has masqueraded as a movie producer, a former boxing champion, a venture capitalist, the son of Sophia Loren, fooling along the way Mickey Rourke and French filmmaker Catherine Breillat.
One of the most stupefying tales of imposture is told in the documentary The Imposter (2011), narrated largely by the imposter himself, another Frenchman – Frédéric Bourdin. In a nutshell, Bourdin had a long history of impersonating lost youngsters – real or imaginary – when, from Spain, he phoned a lost children centre in the USA to find an American identity he could adopt. That identity was Nicholas Barclay, an American boy of 13 who had disappeared three years previously. To his own astonishment, his more or less random choice worked, he passed all the lie-detection hurdles and he was taken back by the family.
This was all the more amazing since he was tall and Nicholas was short, he had dark hair and Nicholas was blond, he had brown eyes and Nicholas had blue eyes, he was and looked half French and half Algerian and Nicholas was an all-American boy, he spoke with a marked French accent and knew nothing of America, and – in short – looked and behaved nothing like the child he was impersonating. Moreover, he was 23 and Nicholas Barclay would have been 16.
There is no doubt from his own commentary that he knew all the tricks and wiles of the imposter, but nothing could explain the scale of this deception and the odds against it. To all appearances, the Barclay family was desperate to find their long lost darling and were so eager to believe that he had reappeared – allegedly after years of sexual abuse at the hands of high-ranking military – that no evidence to the contrary would deter them.
What was in it for Bourdin? In short, a life in America, and a warm family environment that he had never known. In this stunning documentary he recounts each stage of his deception, and his growing amazement at what he was getting away with. Until, that is, a sharp-eyed private investigator, Charlie Parker – a character who seems to have stepped right out of a film noir – spotted the obvious, and it had to do with his ears.
But the incredible twist in this story is when Bourdin himself begins to suspect that his adoptive family has been telling a much bigger lie than any he himself has told.
Patricia Highsmith could have written this, but she didn’t. It’s all true. This documentary will knock your socks off!