If Comic-Con’s eye-candy bonanza didn’t send those among us with a lower tolerance for such spectacular confections into a state of cinematic glucose-shock, this weekend represents a high-risk zone, with the release of “The Dark Knight Rises,” the summer’s culminating comic book extravaganza. Writer-director Christopher Nolan has imbued the comic kingdom’s brooding crusader with a gravitas and psychological depth more befitting the shadowy protagonists of Russian literature’s nineteenth-century golden age; a certain amount of burnout is inevitable.
Fortunately, there is a tonic on hand to counteract blockbuster bloat and any action allergies that have flared up over the summer. This week, “The Imposter,” the critically adored stranger-than-fiction documentary about a French drifter who impersonates missing children, will expand its release to major cities nationwide. The film, which debuted to multiple standing ovations at the Sundance Film Festival, boasted the single biggest per-screen average of any film in release last weekend (never mind that it was only playing in one theater) and comes equipped with a central character as gasp-inducingly complex, cunning, and charismatic as any comic book villain and hero combined. Oh yeah, and his story’s all true.
The Impostor in question is Frederic Bourdin, a wily street urchin who had devised a system that allowed him to travel all over Europe living in various orphanages and shelters for wayward children by convincing authorities that he was a recently abandoned minor. In fact, he had spent the better part of two decades playing on the sympathies of social workers and cops in order to score free room and board. His career living off the fat of the European child and family social welfare system didn’t end until he was over thirty years old.
How did Bourdin pull it off? He was a world-class liar whose rare gift for untruth enabled him to not only convince anyone of anything but also to enlist the listener to corroborate his tall tales, even if he/she had a vested interest in exposing Bourdin’s fabrication. Bourdin eked out a life fueled on fictions he justified to himself as his way of satisfying the unquenchable thirst for love and affection he’d been harboring since his family abandoned him as a young child. He also figured, what’s the harm as long as he’s not hurting anyone?
And then he did.
The deception that lead to Bourdin’s downfall began like the others and then metastasized, in the way lies often do, into something much more poisonous. The short version is that Bourdin upped the ante and rather than pass himself off as an anonymous drifter, he claimed to be Nicholas Barclay, an actual missing kid who had vanished from his San Antonio home at the age of fourteen. Not only did he manage to convince European authorities he was one of the kids who appeared on American milk cartons; he also persuaded Barclay’s family that he was their long lost Nicholas.
It may be tempting to blame the Barclay’s credulousness on a state of temporary insanity or the blinding power of wishful delusion. But that would discount Bourdin’s singular skills as a master manipulator. This is not conjecture but based on my own firsthand experiences as a journalist who encountered Bourdin back in 1998, soon after he was placed in a Texas jail when authorities pieced together his true identity. Our interactions began with a recorded message announcing that I was receiving a call at my Premiere magazine office from a Texas inmate who stated his name with a very thick accent. How could I not accept?
Crafty creature that he was, Bourdin was convinced that he could weasel out of the very serious charges of which he was accused by eliciting the sympathies of the American public. So he began working the jailhouse phone cold calling journalists and seducing them with the promise of exclusive access to his sensational story. So after hearing Bourdin’s hand-crafted sob story about how he had been abandoned by his parents and spent his life in search of a surrogate family who would fill his love deficit, I bit down hard and swallowed the bait.