The Imposter (2012) Review

Posted by in Film Review

The Imposter is one of the most recommended documentaries on the Internet, but are the layers of deception true to the genre?

Director: Bart Layton

The Imposter tells the unbelievably fascinating story of how French man Frédéric Bourdin impersonated a missing Texan boy, going as far as not only fooling Government officials but also the boy’s own family. If you haven’t watched it I highly recommend that you do so and do not read anymore about the events that unfold. Seriously, stop reading right now and go watch it. I personally thought it is one of the most unique documentaries I have ever seen, with any complaint I had at the film’s start being completely nullified by the end. But what exactly was up with that last third of The Imposter? What is the director really trying to say? And can you even call this a true documentary?

Spoilers for The Imposter (2012) below

The Twist

Throughout The Imposter there are small hints of struggles within the family, which could lead you to think that they may have murdered Nicholas before Bourdin even suggests it. It makes you feel clever for realising this twist before it happens and helps to cement that this theory could be a very high possibility. Suddenly the whole pace and atmosphere changes. Bourdin goes from a trickster to someone being played themselves. The family from one that seemed happy to have their missing Son back to this defensive and confrontational interconnected web. It really brings an air of who can you really trust? Was Bourdin actually in danger of being hurt, or worse? But despite the fact that the documentary even states that they have never been charged due to there being no evidence, the Internet message boards are full of people saying that they did do it. That it is so blindingly obvious and that there is no other possible explanation. Even someone who apparently knows the family took to IMDB to defend them, stating that ‘the producers should be ashamed of themselves‘ for bringing these accusations to a wide audience. But that’s missing the whole point of The Imposter, because the twist is fake. The director isn’t hinting at the family killing Nicholas, not even for a second.

The Twist is Fake

The true aim of The Imposter is not to tell the story of the events that unfolded. It is not to suggest that the family should be investigated more thoroughly for murder. Instead, all along the film’s goal was to show how someone can be manipulated by a con artist into believing whatever they want you to believe. In the case of the family this was that he was indeed Nicholas. In the case of the audience it’s that they killed him. Every Frame A Painting has explored how this was achieved from a directorial standpoint in the video below.

In the video Tony (the creator fo Every Frame A Painting) explains how director Bart Layton chose to shoot all the subjects looking off frame and from either above or below, apart from Bourdin who looks directly at the viewer from eye-level. Reconstructions are usually from his point of view and he is the only interviewee with a blurred background and no title card. Throughout the film it is him in charge. This all helps to get you to believe him when he says that the family killed Nicholas. After all, why wouldn’t the family recognise their own Son? Why do they trust this imposter so much? But in-fact he has tricked the viewer into believing what he wants, just like he did to them. You as a viewer have been placed into the head of his Mother, his Sister, his Brother: the ones being fooled. It answers the very question so many people are asking as a critique of the film: why do they believe him? I think this is such an intelligent way to show how people can be deceived, without being in-your-face or up-front to the viewer. Instead you are allowed to think for yourselves as you are shown how this works as opposed to being simply told it.

Is The Imposter a Documentary?

As fantastic as this idea and execution is, I think that it then poses an important question about The Imposter: is it s a documentary? Being categorised as one certainly helps in fooling the audience, but when dealing with real-life events should the story told not be as accurate as possible? Isn’t the point to let an audience discover facts and information about the world? After all, in an article in The New Yorker and others like it available on the web there is information that perhaps should have been included in the documentary, and sometimes conflicts with it. Despite the aim of The Imposter to trick you, is it not a disservice to only tell half-truths? Yes this film wants to deceive you, but do you as a filmmaker not have principles of truth to follow in order to tell an unbiased story? After all, your work is being seen by so many people who are then receiving a very skewed version of events. Layton gives a rebuttal to this in the following quote.

“There’s this idea of documentary purity that is not terribly realistic. I think everyone who’s ever picked up a camera or sat in an edit suite will be aware that there are lots of subjective decisions being made. This idea that you can create a film that is purely objective, it’s just not a realistic ideology.
What I wanted to do was something I found more interesting and possibly more challenging, which was to present the audience with different and in some ways conflicting versions of the truth.” – Bart Layton, Director (Via Huffington Post)

This is  an interesting argument. For this particular case considering the director’s aims I think that this is a passable explanation for why the film was presented in the way that it is. Playing with viewer expectations means that the reaction is almost part of the project itself, which is highly commendable. I just don’t believe that any other documentary should mimic these ideas. As the backlash to this film shows, general audiences are too easily manipulated for the genre to not at least attempt an impartial viewpoint. Viewers can hopefully then think for themselves in a clearer fashion about what they want to believe. And hopefully we get closer to the truth, which in The Imposter we just simply never see.

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