The cinema of Lasse Hallström, always toeing the fragile line between sincere tenderness and full-blown schmaltz, is most affecting when immersed in the complexities of childhood experience. My Life as a Dog remains the best representation of Hallström’s filmmaking prowess, a wondrous children’s story that organically overlaps the magic of youth with the harsh realities of impending adulthood. In the story of Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius), an inquisitive young boy forced to spend the summer in the countryside so his sickly mother can recuperate from tuberculosis, Hallström foreshadows the themes of isolation, mortality, and compassion he would further develop in his best American film, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Instead of sentimentalizing Ingemar’s emotional highs and lows, My Life as a Dog relishes the ambiguities inherent to his impressionable gaze, the gaps in his memory that seem as natural and cyclical as the changing seasons.
While death is a constant in My Life as a Dog, it’s never sensationalized as a morbid curiosity or gimmick. Instead, Hallström focuses on the ripples of mortality, how Ingemar connects his personal anguish with experiences of loss from supporting characters. Ingemar spends much of the story observing other people suffer from various ailments, his mother being the obvious example, but also in the case of a bedridden elderly man living with his Uncle Gunnar (Tomas von Brömssen). It’s as if proximity to the process of death is more important than the event itself (we don’t see either character die). Whether Ingemar is bringing his mother breakfast in bed or reading aloud to the decrepit old man from a woman’s underwear catalogue, there’s a focus on the nuances of wrinkled skin, frail hands, or skeletal bone structure, and how Ingemar views these details in from the vantage point of a child.
Despite its contained 1950s rural setting, My Life as a Dog references the world at large through Ingemar’s contemplation of other people’s experiences with tragedy. Random newspaper stories from around the world define his frank voiceover narration, which comes during hypnotic cutaways of the starry night sky. Hallström creates a juxtaposition of separate temporalities and experiences to structure Ingemar’s tangential thought process, a way for both character and audience to make sense of events that often defy expectation. The defining example of this aesthetic trend, a story Ingemar references more than once, is of the Russian space dog Laika sent into orbit as an experimental precursor to manned flights. Ingemar continuously ponders why anyone would let a harmless dog die alone hundreds of thousands of miles away from home, especially after his own dog is taken away to a kennel before his departure for the countryside. Once again, the personal aspects of his consciousness merge with surrounding world.
Still, for every sequence in My Life as a Dog concerned with the subtle and unseen ramifications of death, there’s countless more about the rhythms of life, punctuated by Björn Isfält’s breezy musical score bridging sequences of vibrant movement and discovery. During Ingemar’s extended vacation to Gunnar’s hometown, he meets a wide array of unique characters that expand his physical and emotional world. He plays soccer, learns to box with a tomboy named Saga (Melinda Kinnaman), and helps build a small gazebo with Gunnar. Fields of green grass, crystal clear streams, and dense forests frame these moments, as Ingemar spreads his wings away from the heartache of his mother’s sickness. It’s always clear the adult world and its conflicts are unfolding simultaneously on the fringes of Ingemar’s heightened childhood experience, but whether it’s an argument between his aunt and uncle or a fight between workers at the local glass blowing factory, these are merely momentary distractions to the overall world of play.
Time is never a concern for Ingemar since he has no need for dates, deadlines, or responsibilities, and this might be my favorite aspect of Hallström’s filmmaking. My Life as a Dog is one of the few children’s films that defies this sort of temporal structure, allowing fleeting moments of experience, like an embrace between two friends or naked woman being sketched by the light of a candle, to progress without any constraints beyond the elemental observations of a child’s imagination. In a way, Hallström relinquishes the pace of the film to his child protagonist, and Ingemar’s meandering thoughts often splinter without notice to incorporate whatever his impression of the world becomes at that particular moment. This makes for a beautiful and incomplete vision of one boy’s subjective act of remembrance.
It’s extremely disheartening that Hallström has never been able to recapture the hypnotic and honest feel of My Life as a Dog during his tenure as a Hollywood filmmaker, even though What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? comes close. In fact, his American career reflects an extended 20-year slide downward into the dank realm of melodramatic drivel (Dear John being his worst offense to date). Alas, it wouldn’t be the first time a talented foreign filmmaker was consumed by such Western indulgences. Still, My Life as a Dog and its sublime vision of childhood will always be there to remind us of the filmmaker Hallström once was, and potentially could be again.
My Life as Dog is often defined by physical surroundings and seasonal imagery, mainly the lush greenery of a countryside summer and the dense snowcaps of a Swedish winter. These elements parallel Ingemar's experiences with life and death in fascinating ways. Criterion's strong 1080p high-definition transfer improves on their standard-definition disc in this respect, accentuating the textures of his environment so the viewer can experience them with an added sense of clarity. The color schemes are also superbly realized with this disc, my favorite being a shot of Ingemar and Saga aglow in warm light while resting in hay. The sound design is less impressive, if only because it stems from a compressed monaural track that sometimes lowers and rises mid-scene.
Includes the same extras from Criterion's standard DVD package, the highlight being Lasse Hallström's 1973 Shall We Go to My Place or Your Place or Each Go Home Alone?, a 52-minute film about three young men attempting to pick up women in a crowded city bar. Made for Swedish television, the cramped narrative feels slightly Buñuelian, darkly comic and suffocating in nature. Also, there's a video interview with Hallström, who discusses his time directing films with ABBA in the 1960s, the autobiographical aspects of his work, and finally his time working in Hollywood. Aside from the original theatrical trailer, there's a booklet featuring a fine essay by Michael Atkinson and impassioned appreciation by author Kurt Vonnegut.
One of the great films about childhood perception, My Life as a Dog and all its atmospheric beauty comes to Blu-ray thanks to the Criterion Collection.