In the summer of 1556, Arnaud du Tilh strolled into a village in Artigat, France, and loudly proclaimed to be Martin Guerre, one of the town’s citizens who’d disappeared eight years previously. Unbelievably, they believed him, and Arnaud was accepted into society for three years by the whole of Guerre’s family, including his wife. Eventually, however, someone spotted that all was not right with the town’s new resident and the French imposter was tried and executed. A remarkable story and, some might say, one that’s unique to its era. Then it happened again. In 1997 the Frenchman Frédéric Bourdin walked into a Spanish Children’s Hospice and successfully convinced the whole world, including the victim’s family, that he was Nicholas Barclay, a Texan child that had gone missing three years earlier.
Tellingly, filmmakers have been unable to leave the two stories alone. In 1982 Daniel Vigne dramatized the 16th century oddity and the result is a superb exploration of how slippery identity can be. Here, though, the differences start to mount up. Vigne had to tell a story about something that happened over 400 years ago, a documentary that included talking-head interviews and video recordings of Martin wasn’t really on the cards; it had to be dramatized so there’s only so far he could’ve taken the discussion. British director Bart Layton has no such problems with his debut feature. The year was 1997; almost everyone is still alive and willing to speak. Layton even has video footage of the family meeting the fake Nicholas – in case you’re interested, it’s awkward.
Still, bringing Nicholas’ (or is that Frédéric Bourdin’s?) story to film can have been no easy task and in lesser hands this could have been a disaster destined to populate late night TV channels. What's worrying is that more stories are as difficult as this to represent than many factual filmmakers would care to admit. Most documenters simply lack the, dare we say it, honesty that Layton shows in concluding that he simply doesn't know who to believe. That's not to say his style isn't bold and comprehensive; he presents interviews with all the major players and bravely decides to re-create key scenes, normally a technique that would be cause for concern given that this is a rumination on the nature of the truth, but the details are kept fuzzy and confused. This is not Crime Watch and Layton does well to use his re-creations to show off the air of disorientation that surrounds the case.
Like the Guerre story, The Imposter is a lesson on the impossibility of trying to define the word ‘fact’. You see, there are always two sides to every story and everyone interviewed has a clear reason to argue their case. Unfortunately for those seeking a neat resolution, all involved rise to the occasion; from the obsessed Private Eye who first notices that Nicholas has different ears, to the distanced, on-edge mother of the real missing boy, they’re all compelling. With the help of some careful editing from Andrew Hulme, Layton offers up all the details; conclusions are to be drawn for homework.
The real star of the show, if it’s appropriate to describe him as such, is the imposter himself Frédéric Bourdin. The man’s an engaging, charismatic chameleon, who invites sympathy and, at times, gains it despite the nature of his crimes. Arnaud du Tilh would be proud and also, I suspect, a tiny bit jealous.
A gripping, thought provoking, oddly open-minded documentary that twists like an episode of CSI and yet still concludes like an academic study on the nature of the truth.