The term "stranger than fiction" is bandied around a lot, particularly in reference to non-fiction films; but this story of a serial con-artist truly deserves the description.
It's hard to remember a true story so literally incredible - it is an order of magnitude more astounding than, say, Grizzly Man or Touching the Void. Yet it is also an extremely skilful and original piece of film-making, in which style works in the service of the story to mesmerising effect.
Its title character, a Frenchman whose real name is Frederic Bourdin, claims a record of 500 impersonations, though many were inventions rather than identity thefts. The film concentrates on one of the latter: in 1997 he assumed the identity of Nicholas Barclay, who had gone missing three years earlier from his home in San Antonio, Texas, at the age of 13 and has never been found.
Bourdin's Nicholas was "discovered" cowering in a phone box in Spain, and reunited with his "family" in the United States, who accepted him as their own even though he had a French accent and his eyes were the wrong colour.
In a theatrical feature debut after amassing a clutch of TV credits (he made the Banged Up Abroad series, which screens on National Geographic), director Layton filmed astonishingly candid interviews with Bourdin before even seeking a producer. And the man he discovers is an unloved child ("as long as I can remember, I wanted to be acceptable ... nobody ever gave a damn about me; I was reborn"), who finally seems to drop all pretence.
Wisely, Layton does not engage in psychoanalysis or handwringing; he never loses sight of the story's thriller heart. Interviews with Bourdin and the family are intercut with staged sequences using actors, not simply to dramatise what happened but to anatomise it, to provide what producer Simon Chinn calls "an interpretation of the slippery truth". Past and present merge and divide; real-life voices are lip-synched with actors' mouths and vice versa. What emerges is a story of deceit and self-deception in which different fantasies sustain each other and where what "really" happened assumes an almost mythic force.
Meanwhile, the film has a hero of sorts, a portly private investigator called Charlie Parker, resplendent in red suspenders, whose suspicions prove the key to Bourdin's undoing.
If you think the foregoing is one long spoiler, relax. From the opening the film leaves you in no doubt where it's going; the creepy pleasure is all in the getting there. This film is the summer's wickedest thrill.
Director: Bart Layton
Running time: 99 mins
Rating: M (offensive language)
Verdict: Much stranger than fiction