My Life as a Dog | Lasse Hallström

They spend their time doing stuff, however inexpertly, rather than sitting around watching other people do stuff.

If you’ve only seen Lasse Hallström’s most recent films, you might well take him to be a moderately talented director specializing in overly sentimental films like A Dog’s Purpose (2017), which I actually liked it more than most critics, and Safe Haven (2013), which currently holds a 12% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Scroll back a few decades, however, and you will find that he used to make much more unconventional films. Exhibit A in this regard is My Life as a Dog (1985), his first film to receive widespread recognition outside Sweden, including Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted screenplay. In retrospect, what may be interesting about My Life as a Dog is how different it is from Hallström’s more familiar (and, to my mind, inferior) later films.

It’s the late 1950s in Sweden, and 12-year-old Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius, in his only film credit) can’t seem to get it right. He’s basically a good kid, and full of deep thoughts, but is constantly getting himself in trouble. He’s sorry after the fact, of course, but just can’t help himself, whether he’s making a mess in the kitchen, getting a body part stuck in a place that it should never have been, or lighting a camp fire that spreads far beyond his intentions. Ingemar doesn’t have the margin of error for getting into mischief that most kids would, because there’s a big secret no one has told him: His mother (Anki Liden) is terminally ill. Exhausted by her illness, she doesn’t have the patience to deal with Ingemar and his hijinks, and he’s too immature to understand why she collapses in tears and rage after yet another episode of him acting before he thinks.

No one bothers to explain to Ingemar what’s going on, beyond the euphemism that his mother needs to “rest,” but one day he finds himself packed off to stay with relatives he’s never met. This turns out to be a rare stroke of luck, because he ends up living in a village in Småland with his uncle Gunnar (Tomas von Brömssen) and his wife Ulla (Kicki Rundgren). They’re not fancy people—Gunnar and Ulla both work in a glass factory, and share their company-owned house with an assortment of other tenants—but they’re good-hearted people who enjoy life and have time for him, in a way that his mother did not (in fairness, his father long ago skipped town, so she’s stressed with responsibilities independent of her illness). Gunnar also remembers what it was like to be a boy, once interrupting Ingemar just as he was about to misbehave with a story about how sausage is made, which is just about as gross (and thus delightful for a boy of a certain age) as you might imagine it to be.

Sex is a natural and enjoyable thing in Gunnar’s household, which is quite a change from Ingemar’s previous home. Other residents of their village are also aware of the joys of the flesh in a way that’s a bit over Ingemar’s head, but he doesn’t object when he’s enlisted to read lingerie catalogues to a bedridden old man or to act as a chaperone for Berit (Ing-Marie Carlsson), a blonde beauty who poses in the nude for a local sculptor. While Ingemar was no stranger to sexual exploration in his previous home, there it tended to get him into trouble, while here it’s just something people do. He soon draws the attention of the local tomboy, Saga (Melinda Kinnaman, in her first role), who boxes and plays soccer with the boys, but informs Ingemar that such activities will soon come to an end because her breasts are starting to grow. His reaction is priceless, and not at all what you would find in a conventional in a coming of age film.

My Life as a Dog could easily have become an unbearable tearjerker, given its story of a misunderstood boy saved by kind relatives and a whole supporting case of village eccentrics. It could also have become the kind of overcalculated Oscar bait that Hallström produced in mid-career, like The Cider House Rules (1999) or Chocolat (2000). But it didn’t succumb to either fate, perhaps being protected by the smallness of its budget and the fact that Hallström was not yet famous, and hence no one had yet told him that he should round off the rough edges of his story and crank up the emotive content in order to draw a bigger audience.

My Life as a Dog succeeds on an intimate, human scale that is entirely appropriate for a story covering about a year in the life of a pretty ordinary boy in a pretty ordinary place. No one in the village is particularly good at anything, from the soccer team to the unicyclist who inevitably falls on his tightrope, but that’s not the point. They’re all busy living their lives, enjoying the small pleasures that come to them, and are not at all worried about having to be a big success at anything in order to find life worthwhile.

American movies set in this period (the late 1950s) are often celebrations of technology—big cars, the latest TV sets—but Ingemar’s life in the village is much more about living in the natural world and enjoying the company of other people. When Gunnar brings home a TV, he can’t get it to work, but no one really cares. Besides, they already have the radio and the phonograph, and Ingemar and Gunnar’s favorite song (a Swedish version of “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts”) runs through the film as a leitmotif signaling their ability to enjoy something silly together, even if someone with more sophistication might look down their nose at it. The fact that no one in the village spends much time watching TV also means they are not consumed with wanting things they don’t have (“free” TV being basically a delivery mode for advertising), and they spend their time doing stuff, however inexpertly, rather than sitting around watching other people do stuff.

Although the progress of Ingemar’s life is basically positive over the course of the film, there’s also a melancholy undercurrent to My Life as a Dog, most obviously through Ingemar’s rather literary reflections on life (the screenplay was adapted from a novel by Reidar Jönsson). The dog of the title is Laika, launched into space by the Russians as part of the experimentation that led to the first human space flight, and it’s no surprise that Ingemar identifies a bit with this helpless creature. He also reflects often on the need to have distance from your own experience, so you can understand it better, and considers what he could have done differently to help his mother understand him, and perhaps save her life. Of course the latter is impossible, but he’s still enough of a child that the things he doesn’t understand can run together in his mind, and he’s as uncomprehending of unspoken social conventions as he is of the expected course of a TB infection. There’s not a Hollywood happy ending to My Life as a Dog, but you do leave it with the sense that Ingemar will grow into his life and be able to cope with whatever it presents to him. | Sarah Boslaugh

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