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Capsule Movie Reviews

Reviewed: 'Garbo: The Spy,' 'Tomboy'

November 25, 2011
  • A scene from "Garbo: the Spy."
A scene from "Garbo: the Spy." (First Run Features )

The extraordinary double agent at the center of the artful documentary "Garbo: The Spy" never comes into sharp focus as a definable character — and that makes perfect sense for one of the 20th century's masters of deception.

The inspiration for Graham Greene's "Our Man in Havana" and a key engineer of the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, Juan Pujol is nothing less than fascinating. "Garbo: The Spy" takes a fittingly inventive approach to the story of an operative whose MI5 code name reflected his supreme talents as an actor.

Born into a bourgeois Barcelona, Spain, family in 1912, Pujol could have led a comfortable life, but he was determined to play an active part in Europe's increasingly tumultuous history. There's something almost comical about the way his espionage career developed, after multiple rejections by British intelligence. By the time the Brits enlisted his services and dubbed him Garbo, Pujol had become a trusted source of (dis)information for the Nazis with his network of intricately imagined fictional sub-agents.

Director Edmon Roch makes some smart conceptual choices that honor his subject's self-invention and mystery. Talking-head experts are unidentified until almost halfway into the film, and Roch interweaves evocative excerpts from well-known movies, some of them romantic depictions of Pujol's World War II machinations.

When Pujol appears late in the film, the effect is deeply moving, the mystery undimmed. Roch laces the closing credits with additional information, but it's clear that this is a life beyond the scope of a single film.

"Garbo: The Spy" is a compelling introduction.

Sheri Linden

"Garbo: The Spy." No MPAA rating. In English, Spanish, Catalan and German with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. At Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills.

Quiet and naturalistic in the best way, the French film "Tomboy" rolls out a tale of malleable pre-adolescent identity with a marked absence of sensationalism.

With possibility in the air after her family moves to a suburban apartment enclave, 10-year-old Laure (Zoé Heran) — a gangly figure with pinched features and short, cowlick-y hair — passes herself off as "Mikael" to the local cluster of boisterous kids, one of whom is a girl (Jeanne Disson) who develops a crush on this strangely vulnerable-looking new boy.

As Laure adapts to her gambit — teaching herself to spit, going shirtless if necessary, working with, ahem, a clay model for swimming shorts' sake, and eventually recruiting her 6-year-old sister (Malonn Lévana) in the deception — an undeniable tension mounts.

But filmmaker Céline Sciamma, following up her ethereal coming-of-age piece "Water Lilies," keeps her atmospheric focus squarely on a richly observed, nonjudgmental summer tableau of children in frolic: amid the lively scenes of tag, soccer, truth-or-dare and king of the hill, there just happens to be a more questioning and privately liberating form of externalized pretending in these kids' orbit.

Anchored by Heran's bravely nuanced turn and the impish cuteness of Lévana — whose giddy joy at briefly inheriting a protective older brother is thoroughly charming — "Tomboy" stands out as an especially affecting delicacy about the thrills and pitfalls of exploring who one is.

—Robert Abele

"Tomboy." No MPAA rating. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes. At Laemmle's Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena; and Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino.

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