For a documentary about deception and disguise, it’s only fitting that Bart Layton’s The Imposter employs a visual style that blurs the lines between reality and fiction. The movie makes heavy use of re-enactments, playing fast and loose with the boundaries of veracity in its intriguing chronicle of a Frenchman who pretended to be a long lost Texas boy in the late-1990s. (After premiering at Sundance in January, the film opens in theaters this week.)
Not since James Marsh’s Man on Wire, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2009, has a nonfiction film so extensively used elaborately produced cinematic recreations to tell its story. Once considered taboo by nonfiction filmmakers, such restaged sequences have become a staple of the form in recent years. Yet not all re-enactments are alike. In fact, The Imposter takes such simulations to a place that would make Jean Baudrillard proud: As the French theorist once wrote, “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth; it is the truth which conceals that there is none.”
The central character in this quasi-reality play is child imposter Frédéric Bourdin, whose life was famously covered in David Grann’s 2008 story for The New Yorker, “The Chameleon.” Over the course of several years, Grann serially posed as adolescents who experienced abuse, even torture (Bourdin himself claims to have been molested, though there is no proof of the allegation). In the story that serves as the central narrative of the film, Bourdin finds his way into the home of a Texas family whose son had gone missing a few years prior. He also has his own ideas about what happened to the missing Texas boy he impersonated. But is anything that Bourdin says credible?
To a large degree, The Imposter lets Bourdin tell his own story; and considering that he is the epitome of the unreliable narrator, his misdirections set the tone for the entire film. Half the time we can’t even trust what we’re seeing. The movie opens on a stormy night, for instance, with lightening flashes and thunderclaps for extra dramatic effect. A voice from a telephone informs us that a teenager has been found. Amid torrents of falling rain, the camera then follows a police officer that stumbles upon a male figure huddled inside a phone booth. On first viewing, audiences are easily drawn into this noir-ish scene, which is stylishly illuminated by the flickering blue light from a police car siren. But as the story unfolds, we learn that much of what we first saw was not as it seemed. Both the young man in the phone booth and the voice on the telephone were part of Bourdin’s ruse, which The Imposter effectively replicates. In The Imposter, then, re-enactment is not just re-enactment: it’s further manipulation.
Since the beginning of documentary filmmaking, re-enactments have been a crucial storytelling tool for nonfiction filmmakers. Robert Flaherty famously staged Nanook’s seal hunting expedition in 1922′s landmark documentary Nanook of the North. In the intervening years, many other documentarians have staged scenes with actors and sets to visualize parts of a story that happened in the past. Recent examples include the aforementioned Man on Wire, which recounts Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974, and Kevin Macdonald’s popular 2003 film Touching the Void, which follows two climbers on a perilous Andes mountain expedition in 1985.
But the most renowned proponent of re-enactments, Errol Morris, who wrote extensively about the subject in the New York Times (“Play it Again, Sam”), often uses recreations in a more nuanced way, rather than simply reproducing scenes to recount a historical moment. In The Thin Blue Line, for example, which includes several recreations of its most pivotal moment—a police officer shot during a routine traffic stop—he’s staging scenes to interrogate various people’s memory of the events. “They weren’t a way of illustrating reality,” Morris has explained. “They’re illustrations of untruths; they’re not dramatic reenactments of reality; they’re dramatic reenactments of unreality.”
But while this might sound like the kinds of reenactments used in The Imposter, Layton’s tactics are far less trustworthy than Morris’s. In The Imposter, it’s difficult to discern when we’re in “unreality” or not, whereas in the noir-ish world of The Thin Blue Line, it’s always clear that such sequences are fabrications.
As Morris explained in the Times:
“The kind of re-enactments I have in mind are not based on trying to fool you into believing that something is real that is not. Nor are they based on the suspension of disbelief. They are not asking us to suspend your disbelief in an artificial world that has been created expressly for their entertainment; they are asking the opposite of us—to study the relationship of an artificial world to the real world. They involve the suspension of belief—not disbelief. The audience is being asked the question: did it happen this way? The kind of re-enactments I have in mind makes us question what we believe and brings us deeper into the mystery of what happened.”
Layton also brings us deeper into the mystery of the events, but the world of The Imposter asks for a less studious viewer. Because the audience is so rapidly swept along by The Imposter‘s thrilling narrative of twists and turns, and so frequently duped by Bourdin’s—as well as filmmaker Layton’s—game, the spectator is not put in the same kind of actively engaged position that Morris’ film demands. The Imposter may be a more fun ride, but it’s arguably more suspect. Which, given the subject matter, is probably Layton’s point.
“I washed her brain,” Bourdin says in the film, speaking about the way in which he had fooled the missing Texas boy’s older sister upon their first meeting. The Imposter, similarly, twiddles with the viewer’s mind, playing voices on the audio track that we soon discover are Bourdin’s impersonations and using expressive cinematography that renders real-life sequences more fictional, and fictional sequences more real.
And yet, for all of its glossy dramatizations and reality blurring, one of The Imposter‘s most potent moments—which Layton saves for last—is entirely and bracingly a moment of verité, and all the more disturbing for it. We see the real imposter, Bourdin, in white prison garb dancing furiously and manically in an empty gym, grabbing his crotch in a brash, Michael Jackson-like performance that’s both a fuck-you to those he’s continually wronged and, in a strange way, the most bare and revealing depiction of his persona. Perhaps, this footage suggests, all those re-enactments pale in comparison to the real thing.
Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for Indiewire.com.