He Had Changed
I am a manipulator… My job is to manipulate.
— Frédéric Bourdin
“He seems very young. He’s very scared.” In 1997, Frédéric Bourdin called the police in Linares, Spain. Pretending to be a tourist, he said he’d found a boy in a phone booth, a boy who seemed traumatized. When an officer arrived on the scene, the boy crouched low and hid his face with a scarf and sweatshirt hood, with a plan in mind. “I wanted to provoke in him a sense of guilt,” Bourdin says.
As he speaks, The Imposter cuts from a phone booth, where re-enactor Adam O’Brian is submerged in shadows, the sound of rain hard against the glass, and Bourdin now, remembering his ruse. The juxtaposition seems simple—then and now, fiction and fact—but it also introduces the film’s many layers of truth and performance. The boy Bourdin is playing is about 15 or 16, and he’s silent in the reenacted flashback. “It’s very hard to read a kid that doesn’t speak a word sometimes,” Bourdin observes. The scene cuts to the boy in the back of a police car, looking directly into the camera and mouthing Bourdin’s words: “I wasn’t the one telling them that I was abused, I made them ask me that by my attitude.”
At the time, Bourdin was 23 years old and already an experienced impostor. This time, the performance took him from Linares to San Antonio, Texas. Delivered to a shelter in Spain, he asked to make a phone call; left alone in an office, he found the number of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Virginia, then, posing as the shelter’s director, discovered the name of a missing child, Nicholas Barclay, who had disappeared in 1994. Now he would be 16, and now, Bourdin claimed his identity. Discovering that the missing boy was blond and had a couple of tattoos, Bourdin dyed his hair and had a girl at the shelter copy the ink, crudely, in order to pass as Nick.
When he ran into what seem impossible-to-explain characteristics—Bourdin’s eyes were brown rather than blue like Nick’s and his accent was fixedly French—he came up with stories. He’d been kidnapped by an international sex ring, brutally abused by military men and subjected to “experiments” on his eyes and forced to speak only French for three years. Authorities didn’t press him, and by the time Nick’s half-sister Carey Gibson traveled to Spain to collect him, his act was apparently convincing enough—helped by the fact that Carey showed him photos of family members and identified each, repeatedly, so that he might answer rudimentary questions.
This part of the story—the siblings’ “reunion” in the Linares shelter—is recalled more than once, by Bourdin and also by Gibson. Neither quite makes clear what he or she saw or how they connected. He remembers feeling anxious (“You can’t prepare to be a person you don’t know, I didn’t know at that point whether he was left or right-handed: that was a problem”) and she recalls how impressed she was that she could buy a Coke in Spain (she had never been outside Texas before then). “I washed her brain,” Bourdin submits, but the film hints that Gibson was simultaneously embarking on her own performance. As reenactors show how Gibson showed Bourdin the photos, he sighs, “Only God know why she would do something like that.”
As the film reconstructs Bourdin’s life in Texas—he moved into Gibson’s trailer home, attended high school, hung out with fellow students—this question, why?, comes up again and again. That’s not to say The Imposter provides an answer as to why Gibson and her family, including her mother Beverly Dollarhide and brother Bryan, accepted Bourdin as Nick or even whether Bourdin’s self-description (“I wanted to be someone else, someone who was acceptable”) begins to elucidate his pathology.
Instead, the movie introduces a series of investigators to ask variations of the question. FBI agent Nancy Fisher and a private detective, Charlie Parker (hired by the TV show Hard Copy to research the story) offer their own versions of events, that is, their individual and then combined efforts to sort out the serial imposter’s identity and also the family’s part in this episode. Fisher narrates her increasing suspicions concerning the sex ring story and the family’s behavior (“Why would you ever take in a stranger?”), while Parker recounts his theories of the case (“I thought I had a spy, a real honest to God spy”) while driving through San Antonio now, pointing out the places he looked or found interview subjects, as well as the backyard where, he guesses, a body might have been buried.
Parker’s story remains unfinished, as does most everyone else’s. Some of them lose their beginnings, too, or maybe just break down into numerous beginnings. “I finally succeeded to be a kid again,” Bourdin smiles, suggesting that his lack of a childhood, his abuses by adults and abandonment by his parents, explain his ongoing mendacities. But then, you might wonder, how much truth might he know or be able to tell?
At the same time, Nick’s disappearance is never solved, most relations among the family members remain unknown. The film intercuts interviews with archival, family photos as well as reenactments. Elusive voiceovers alternate with silence, hanging over images of interview subjects gazing at or away from the camera.
As Bourdin describes his own spiraling worry over the family’s assorted lies—having to do with him and also Nick—the film doesn’t so much confirm his story as it raises questions about Gibson and Dollarhide’s. (Why did they take in this stranger, so visibly not Nick?) If it’s plain that Bourdin is an imposter (tabloid media have deemed him Le Chaméléon), ironically, that becomes the truest part of The Imposter. Beyond that, the movie explores broader questions about what truth might be, how performance and deception structure daily life, how memories are made, and how identities change—constantly.