On 13 June 1994, in San Antonio, Texas, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay went missing. His body was never recovered, and his family was forced to adjust to life without him until October 1997, when the San Antonio police received a call from Linares in Andalusia, Spain, where a boy claiming to be Nicholas had turned up at a children’s shelter. His older half-sister, Carey, flew to Spain to collect her long-lost half-brother.
This boy – who, even when cloaked in baseball cap and scarf, looked perceptibly older than Nicholas (who would have been 16) – claimed to have been trafficked to Spain and systematically abused, his brown eyes turned blue by horrific experiments. The ordeal had, it appeared, prematurely aged him and left him mentally scarred, unwilling to talk about his experiences. Even stranger, the “Nicholas” who was emotionally reunited with his family at San Antonio airport spoke with the hint of a French accent.
This reunion was not the end of the Barclay family’s ordeal, but the beginning. As The Imposter (a feature documentary about the astounding-but-true tale) reveals early on, the boy was not Nicholas, but a French fraud named Frédéric Bourdin, aged 23, who successfully conned his way into the bosom of a missing teenager’s vulnerable family and tore them apart for a second time, with what can only be described as Gothic consequences. The truth is stranger than fiction, goes the cliché. Bart Layton, 36-year-old director of The Imposter, goes one further: “Fact,” he says, “is better than fiction”.
To dust off another truism, you couldn’t make this film up. Deftly constructed from news archive, official documentation and subjective, wordless dramatic reconstruction, the film’s narrative core is the compelling testimony of its principal players: haunted mother Beverly; forthright Carey; her ex-husband Bryan and their son, Codey; brisk FBI agent Nancy Fisher; and a grizzled, dog-with-a-bone private investigator called Charlie Parker. The film is dominated, though, by an in-your-face interview with Bourdin himself, now 38 and the embodiment of the unreliable narrator. Again, without straying into spoilers, the film’s account is far from prescriptive, allowing audiences to make up their minds about what really happened.
“You spend two thirds of The Usual Suspects with no clue what’s going on, but it doesn’t bother you. In fact, you love it,” enthuses Layton, who continually returns to the subject of cinema’s propensity for “enjoyable confusion”.
Although the full details of this obscure story are in the public domain, the less prior knowledge you have, the greater the film’s impact. The Barclay family accepted the curious imposter as their son because, psychologists suggest, they needed him to be Nicholas. To fill an emotional gap? Or with a more sinister agenda?
His mother, Beverly, who uses her original married name of Dollarhide, and seems aged through heroin and methadone addiction, “didn’t seem excited” when reunited with “Nicholas”, and put him in the care of Carey in a cramped trailer. He enrolled in high school, played Nintendo and even went to church. Though Bourdin revels even now in his own deception, he confesses this was not the American dream he’d dishonestly tried to become a part of. The imposter becomes an imposition, his full backstory is finally uncovered and the film goes down darker roads.