For anyone thinking about seeing The Imposter, a word of advice: do not under any circumstance read anything about it before entering the cinema, as this is a film best watched without any knowledge of the subject matter. That kind of makes the following review rather redundant, but I’m going to carry on regardless, attempting to be as vague and spoiler-free as possible…
It’s often said that reality is stranger than fiction. When it comes to The Imposter that’s very much the case, with the story of a man attempting to adopt the identity of a missing boy a premise thousands of screenwriters would have been proud to come up with. However, it’s a tale so shocking and unbelievable that a fictional feature film simply couldn’t do it justice.
Exquisitely directed by Bart Layton, with breath-taking visuals and a murky, foreboding tone, The Imposter is documentary filmmaking on a grand, cinematic scale. The seemingly improbable yet very real story impeccably told, with every second of its running time entirely absorbing and full of intrigue. It’s a film that sucks you in, leading you along a dark, depraved road full of unexpected twists and turns, where your opinions on those involved are challenged throughout, right until the last image. Yet even then you’re left guessing, trying to come to terms with what you’ve just seen and who is telling the truth.
Part psychological thriller, part murder mystery, The Imposter owes a great deal to the film noirs of the 50s – with the key similarity being the use of an unreliable narrator. In this instance our narrator is the imposter himself. Right at the beginning of the film Bourdin tells us he is a liar, but despite this we immediately come to trust the charismatic Frenchman. So much so that he is able to garner a huge amount of sympathy; sympathy that then leads to his accusations and version of events being more believable than that of the grieving family’s. Yet, as we are made aware at one point, how can we take this man’s word as the truth? It’s an alarming moment, as we realise we have been manipulated by Bourdin, just like he said he could and would do. But by merely suggesting something unthinkable, doubt is created. Is what he’s proclaiming to be fact actually the truth for once?
Be warned, unlike a fictional murder mystery, the case isn’t wrapped up neatly in a bow. This results in an ending that points towards a number of different interpretations. In that respect it resembles the conclusion of David Fincher’s Zodiac, however at about half the length and with a much clearer, concise plot. Ultimately you’re left with more questions than answers, which in a work of fiction would be unfulfilling, but in a documentary is downright compelling. For that reason you’ll be left thinking and talking about it for days.
The main reason for this successful ambiguity is that The Imposter is fair and balanced. The filmmakers do not take sides or put the contributors into easily identifiable roles. The biggest example of this is how Bourdin is presented. It’d be easy to depict him as a soulless, unsympathetic fiend, but here he is painted as both the monster and at times the victim. All this done by getting him to talk directly into camera during his interview, his eyes locked on the audience, providing us with a genuine human connection to a man we have every reason to despise.
Overall, The Imposter is a storytelling masterclass that will leave you guessing all the way through to the credits. That combined with its arresting cinematography and creativity make this a documentary that deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Seek it out. You’ll be astounded.