DVD Review Of My Life As A Dog
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/31/10
October Sky. My Dog Skip. These were the first two films that came to me as I watched Swedish director Lasse Hallström’s classic 1985 film My Life As A Dog (Mitt Liv Som Hund). While none of this trio is a film that can be matched against the greatest films of all time: 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Wages Of Fear, La Dolce Vita, etc., all three are very similar to each other in setting up the minds of young male characters in response to the maturation process, and all three come close to true greatness on their own. Given that Hallström took this hit, and rode it to a very hit and miss Hollywood career that includes mediocrities like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and Chocolat, stinkers like The Shipping News and Something To Talk About, and good films like The Cider House Rules, makes this early film in his career all the more noteworthy as an augury of possibilities.
Yet, as good as My Life As A Dog is, there is always the specter of that titan of Swedish cinema to compare it to, and that titan is, of course, Ingmar Bergman. What is most noticeable about this film, vis-à-vis Bergman’s canon, is how utterly Hollywood-like it is in construction and execution. Granted, it is well wrought, well written, and generally well acted and produced in all areas, but it still has that sort of homogenized feel, even if one does not know exactly how it will end. Granted, to rebel without reason leads to silly indulgences like the I Am Curious sex films of Vilgot Sjöman, but one does wish that Hallström would have pushed himself a bit more.
This fact is especially noticeable after one watches Hallström’s first 52 minute made for television film, also included in the Criterion Collection DVD, Shall We Go To My Or Your Place Or Each Go Home? (Ska Vi Gå Hem Till Dej Eller Till Mej Eller Var Och En Till Sitt?). That film, by contrast, shows Hallström as a director with great comic sensibilities, as well as a realistic ear for dialogue, as it depicts three male friends, Calle, Gunnar, and Arne, on a nightclub hopping quest for sex. Calle gets it, and a girlfriend, Gunnar gets laid and nothing more, while Arne gets nothing, and kicked out of his own bed by a nightmarish hippy queen. While still following a bit of a formula (think of a more mature episode of the old Love, American Style tv show), the earlier film has more potential, even if My Life As A Dog is the better overall film. The rest of the DVD contains only comments by Hallström on both films, no audio film commentary- only a theatrical trailer, no English dubbed soundtrack, and two essays on the film- by novelist Kurt Vonnegut and film critic Michael Atkinson. The 101 minute long film is shown in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio.
The film’s tale is straightforward, and not as picaresque as the Anne Of Green Gables saga, even if it does resemble a male version of that tale, at times. It is more linear, with brief excursions into cogitation by the lead character, a boy named Ingemar- played by Anton Glanzelius. Both the DVD cover and some film reviews list the character’s surname as Johansen, the same as the former Heavyweight Boxing Champion, whose 1959 title-winning fight against Floyd Patterson, broadcast on radio, ends the film, but nowhere in the film is this surname used. Within the diegetic reality of the film, it is only the name given to the kid by his pals in his uncle’s town because he boxes like the rest of them do.
The film is mostly told in flashbacks, as it starts from a later scene, and we peer backwards, disjunctively, via Ingemar’s eyes and memory. Ingemar is about twelve or so, and he and his older brother Erik (Manfred Serner), who gets Ingemar’s finger stuck in a bottle as he demonstrates what a penis does inside a vagina for other children, drive his dying mother (Anki Lidén) crazy, with such stunts as accidentally setting fires and locking their mom in a room. What she is dying of is never known, although we see her healthy in a repeated flashback in Ingemar’s mind. Ingemar also likens himself to the Russian space dog Laika, who was the first living creature sent into outer space, and was fated to die. Ingemar connects with this tale, for his own powerlessness, as he also tries to reassure himself that things could be worse, recalling other bits of news trivia about people who suffered much worse than he has. We also know that the boys’ father is a seaman, who is never around. The boys think he is hauling bananas from the tropics, but this could likely be a ruse, just as a similar tale is used in Theo Angelopoulos’s Landscape In The Mist. Both boys are sent to different relatives to live, and Ingemar’s beloved dog Sickan is euthanized at a kennel, without his knowledge. We never learn what becomes of Erik, but Ingemar ends up with his uncle Gunnar (Tomas Von Brömssen) and aunt Ulla (Kicki Rundgren), in a small town in Småland, for the summer. Gunnar is the sort of uncle that all kids love- wise, witty, and a bit childish himself.
He quickly learns to help at the local glassworks factory, where Gunnar works, and which sustains the town. He soon gets the devotion of a cute brunet tomboy, Saga (Melinda Kinnaman)- just as he had the devotion of a cute little blond girl at home, and reads lingerie ads from magazines to a dying and horny old man, Mr. Arvidsson (Didrik Gustavsson), who lives downstairs. He also acts as a moral shepherd for the factory’s sexy blond, Berit (Ing-Marie Carlsson), who is posing nude for the local sculptor, so that she is not seduced by him. Ingemar is off in another room, but wants to peep at the comely lady he is obsessed with, so climbs on the roof and falls through the skylight and almost directly onto Berit. After reuniting briefly with his mother and brother, she dies, and the boys are split up for good, by another relative whose wife refuses to deal with the boys. Ingemar ends up back with Uncle Gunnar, as now it is winter. The old man he read lingerie ads to, has now died, as well, and because Gunnar’s home is owned by the factory, he has to share it with a Greek family, and Ingemar must now share sleeping quarters with the widow, Mrs. Arvidsson. Saga, who has been trying to hide her budding breasts so she can play soccer with the boys, has now fallen for Ingemar, and after showing him her bosom, wants to see his penis. Ingemar refuses, and Saga’s jealousy increases when another girl has an interest in him, and specially invites Ingemar to a party she is throwing. Out of spite, Saga tells him that Sickan was euthanized, and that Gunnar was lying to him about eventually bringing the dog to town. Ingemar is distraught over learning about the death of his dog, on top of that of his mother, and locks himself overnight inside of Gunnar’s small backyard ‘summer house.’ The film opens with this image, and the circle of memory is completed with this moment. The film then moves forward in the present. As time moves on, Saga and Ingemar reunite, and the film ends with the town celebrating Ingemar Johansen’s triumph.
The film was nominated for, and won, several awards across the world, but the specter of Bergman still lingers over the film, even if oppositionally. The Swedes depicted onscreen are nothing like those in the Bergman universe. They are not rich, depressed, and well educated. Ingemar and his brother and mother live in a shanty house slum, and his uncle’s country place is only a little nicer, even if the scenery is much more wholesome. And despite having far more reason to piss and moan than Bergman’s characters do, Ingemar is marked by a perseverance one can only refer to as ‘dogged.’ The cinematography by Jörgen Persson is solid, although there is a repeated static shot of the cosmos, whenever Ingemar gets reflective, that looks like something from a 1950s sci fi film where the word ‘Science!’ is ejaculated ecstatically, which should have been made to look a bit more engaging. Granted, this might be the typical textbook sort of photo that a child would associate with outer space in those days, but it still drags on the often deeper narration Ingemar provides, and simply looks cheap.
While the film was based upon a novel with the same title, written by Reidar Jonsson, and the screenplay was written by Hallström, Jonsson, and Brasse Brannstrom and Per Berglund, the character of Ingemar succeeds less on the words the character speaks, and mostly on the uncanny acting ability- or even inability, of Glanzelius- who never had another major starring role. There is just something ‘off’ about little Ingemar, something which, as reflected in the screenplay, is missing in comparison to Glanzelius’s portrayal. The text would lead one to believe Ingemar is just another kid, if perhaps one a bit ‘off,’ yet Glanzelius’s unaffected portrayal reveals him to be perhaps ‘slow’ or borderline ‘autistic’- as he might now be labeled, especially when he goes on all fours and barks like a dog or cannot drink from a glass in public without spilling the liquid all over himself. Then there is the actor’s very appearance, which has an odd, almost maniacal twinkle in his mien, akin to a young Jack Nicholson’s.All in all, My Life As A Dog is a good non-Hollywood Hollywood film, albeit a deeper one, without forced emotions. It is a film that hints at a promise Hallström has yet to fulfill, opening up the query over whether or not it is better to never fill potential by existence and failure or by not existing at all. Perhaps Ingemar already thought that through whilst pondering that dog high above his own canine plight?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Culture Vulture website.]
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