Personality disorders are alarmingly common amongst human males and females.
Our JCS – Criminal Psychology post covers how some of them are outright dangerous, whereas plenty are perfectly benign and only affect the sufferer.
The very worst have a common them to them—manipulation. Even in a crude form, it’s easy for some to tempt individuals, families, and beyond into a sense of hope. And hope that doesn’t exist!
And that’s where The Imposter comes in, a 2012 documentary about the slippery world of Frédéric Bourdin.
The Imposter and the Art of Deception
If you’ve seen Fawlty Towers, there’s an early episode where a confidence trickster does over Basil Fawlty.
English actor Michael Gwynn (who sadly died shortly after the episode aired in 1976) starred as Lord Melbury. He plays up to Basil’s pomposity and lofty class delusions and completely fools the hotel owner.
Such writing may appear fanciful. And we’d all like to think we’re smart enough to avoid people like this.
But the reality is confidence tricksters are clever enough to play on trigger points, almost like a Pavlov’s dog kind of reaction.
The Imposter displays this in disturbing detail.
Directed by Bart Layton, the documentary centres on a 1997 impersonation by Frédéric Bourdin of American boy. This was Nicholas Barclay, who disappeared at age 13 in 1994.
Bourdin was found by a police officer collapsed in a phone booth and, after taking him in for questioning, the man claimed to be Nicholas Barclay.
The Barclay family was contacted and the members were, naturally, elated.
Rushing off to meet Nicholas, they were instead confronted with a very bizarre reality.
- Bourdin didn’t look like the boy, not even after considering ageing.
- He’d suddenly adopted a French accent.
- His pupils had changed colour.
- His hair was a different colour.
Despite these obvious red flags, Bourdin was convincing enough to fool American authorities on the matter.
He created a lavish and harrowing story of kidnap and abuse in Spain to cover some of his issues, with doctors confirming extreme stress could be enough to change hair and/or pupil colour.
It’s rare, but this can also happen with your voice. There are examples of blood transfusions leading to a change in accent, for example.
And perhaps in their desperation to see Nicholas again, many of the Barclay family want along with Bourdin’s performance.
The way The Imposter presents this is clever, as Bourdin actively participates in the film and presents his story.
Here, Every Frame a Painting breaks down his presence and how the director plays with your sense of unease.
The Imposter definitely makes for uncomfortable viewing.
But it’s also fascinating. The extent of someone’s self-absorbed, almost alien pursuit of whatever goal their aiming for. We’ve seen this first hand, in rather chilling fashion, from someone with a narcissistic personality disorder.
An intriguing film to watch, no doubt, and the revelations about Bourdin left the Barclay family humiliated.
And… why did he do it? As he’s a serial confidence trickster.
It later emerged he’s assumed over 500 false identities over the years and began his impersonations as a child in the late 1970s.
He now claims to have abandoned the practice to live a normal life. This is, arguably, due to his notoriety rather than a genuine desire to do so.
About Frédéric Bourdin
The above clip with Vice is from a January 2021 interview and highlights are fascination with these sorts of characters. As if they’re taken from a movie.
Bourdin was born in Nanterre, Hauts-de-Seine.
He had a difficult childhood, living with his grandparents in Nantes. He never knew his father and he ran away to Paris at a young age to begin his “career”.
It was a successful one, too, which he seemed to be up to until around 2005 with his last high profile case that landed him in jail for four months.
He eventually married in 2007 and had five children, settling in France. But in 2017 he announced his wife had left him for another man.
His nickname is The Chameleon as, to his credit, he was very bloody skilful at duping people with his tactics.
It’s just those on the receiving end aren’t likely to be so appreciative of his antics.