Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Imposter (Bart Layton, 2012)

One of the unfortunate truths about American movie audiences is that they just aren't going to go to the multiplex to see a documentary. Anyone making a documentary film has to resign themselves to the fact that they are therefore attempting to reach a smaller audience than your average narrative film. Among the many reasons that's unfortunate is that films like The Imposter exist. They are documentaries, and they can provide the same degree of suspense and skillful storytelling that any narrative can provide, and as importantly, they are generally concerned with presenting a much more realistic perspective on things that do or have actually happened or existed in the real world. They aren't works of fantasy by their very nature.

To that end, if it weren't already relatively well publicized and easy to research, I don't think the majority of audiences would believe that The Imposter is actually a real story. It's too weird to be real, and too strange to be fiction, but it's true. There are points in the film that would be impossible to believe if it weren't being relayed by the people who are actually at the center of the story. All of the major players in the events the film is depicting are interviewed in the course of the revelation of the story. It not only gives the story credibility, it also adds to the sense of suspense and it adds to the power of the final destination on the journey the film is guiding the audience on.

The Imposter is the story of Frédéric Bourdin, a twenty three year old French citizen who impersonated a missing child from a small town in Texas, and the family who took him in under the auspices that he was their missing child. It's a compelling, shocking and brilliantly told tale about the nature of identity, trust, belief, desire, and perspective. 
To it's credit, The Imposter isn't interested in judging its subjects. It's interested in relating a series of events in a way that highlights how unusual they are and instilling them with a degree of suspense that is going to be sufficient to hold on to the audience. It does all of that with flair and confidence. There aren't any extraneous scenes here, and nothing that isn't directly related to the story being told. The people who are in the film, being interviewed, by the nature of their own individual authenticity make perfectly clear that they are real people. Director Bart Layton had the good sense to let everyone involved in the story tell it from their own perspective and to skip any voice overs and keeps the title cards to a minimum, leaving everything to come directly from the subjects of the film and the people involved in the actual events.

What results is mind blowing. There was no way I would have even begun to guess where this story was going to end up when it began. Frédéric Bourdin is an interesting subject, all by himself. Exactly what would make a 23 year old French citizen decide he was going to impersonate a missing American teenager? One of the strengths of the film is that in letting Bourdin explain it, even though it's ill advised, considering that he is taking over the identity of a child whose family has lost him, it's still understandable. His explanation makes clear that he's essentially taken a basic human experience or emotion to the absolutely furthest possible end it could be taken. He could very well be a sociopath, but his motivations are clear, understandable and not completely unsympathetic. He's a con man, certainly, and the film doesn't at all try to hide or excuse that, but it also makes pretty clear that it takes a human being that's pretty emotionally broken to do something like this. It never presents Bourdin as a bogey man kind of figure or descends into a sappy defense of a reprehensible act.

The Texas family who take Bourdin in end up being just as interesting as he is, and over the course of the film, the questions that are raised about just how they came to accept Bourdin into their home as their lost child is bizarre and riveting. Did they just want to believe he had come back to them so badly they were blind to the undeniable differences between Bourdin and their missing family member or was there something else at play? The Imposter suggests that either answer is equally possible, and the way it presents that had me hollering declarations at my television, which is not something that happens often at all around here. The kind of exasperated tension it creates is a tribute to how well done it is as a whole, and I spent the last half of the film continuing to pick my jaw up off of my chest. It succeeds in providing the kind of cinematic experience most of us generally only expect from the most well made and lovingly constructed films in the pantheon of suspense, noir, and thriller genres. There's a point in the last twenty minutes of the film that is like a physical blow to the chest because it reveals a piece of the story that was beyond comprehension just fifteen minutes earlier. It's a horrifying revelation considering that this is a document of real events, but it's also handled in a way that is just plain great film making. 

Like Exit Through The Gift Shop, The Thin Blue Line, Hoop Dreams and other great documentaries, The Imposter takes the documentary form and brings to it a sense of narrative craft that is admirable and enjoyable. The unfortunate impression mass audiences have of documentaries is that they're slow, dry exercises in being subjected to some over all moral or idea. That is absolutely not the case here and the result is that a film that has the potential to be embraced by a large audience will probably never find it, and people who would deeply enjoy the film aren't going to find it. This has immediately thrown itself on the films I'd suggest are must see.

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