When you further categorize the films that I love the most, you’ll find that the majority of them speak to the transition from childhood to adulthood in one way or another. Maybe it takes the escape to another world to find your way like The Wizard Of Oz or Alice In Wonderland. Sometimes it’s the reflection from an older point of view to the process of getting older like It’s A Wonderful Life or Cinema Paradiso. In the Nineties, one of my favorite examples of this genre was The Cider House Rules. Homer’s journey away from home to the “foreign land” of the Worthington apple orchard and his eventual return home as a “man” to become a father to the children of the orphanage covers all the pains of that journey wonderfully. But it wasn’t the first time that director, Lasse Halstrom, had covered that ground. Fourteen years earlier, the Swede, known at the time for ABBA music videos directed his masterful My Life As A Dog (Mitt Liv Som Hund).
The Criterion Collection had previously released the film on DVD but I’m happy to see it get a Blu-ray release this fall. The Criterion Collection gives these films a second and third chance at finding an audience. I reviewed Betty Blue recently. That film is similar to My Life As A Dog in that, for a number of years they were popular among fans of foreign and independent films. But they are slowly replaced over time by new films that capture the attention of the press and these great films fall to the wayside. They aren’t run on cable channels like TBS, TNT, or FMC like U.S. films from the same time period. It takes a release like this to put it back in front of a new audience that might discover their next favorite film.
The story of My Life As A Dog has two distinct worlds. Ingemar (Anton Glanzellus) and his older brother live with their mother who is very ill. We learn that his father is far away in the Tropics. This world is very bleak for Ingemar who doesn’t understand everything that is going on around him – including his mother’s illness and his relationship with girls his age. As his mother is unable to deal with the boys – they are split up and Ingemar is sent to live with his Aunt Ulla and Uncle Gunnar in a small town in the country (forced to leave his dog behind in a kennel). This world is very magical to young Ingemar. The small village is the opposite of the world the Ingemar had at home. Ingemar’s mother could not take any deviation (like him spilling his milk) and as she got more sick, she faded into the world of her books.
The village is like being in one of her books for Ingemar. The town is dominated by a glassworks factory (where kids seem to have the freedom to go in and out as they please), old men who work on their roof all day, acrobats who show up randomly, and he’s friends with a woman that models nude for the local artist.
Ingemar cannot escape his circumstances though. He deals with being away from his mother by comparing his situation to those of more unfortunate people – like the man pierced through by a javellin. But he draws his biggest comparison to Laika, a Russian dog that was sent up to space but was not given enough food or a way back home and starved to death. We constantly intersperse two scenes – a view of the sky as Ingemar wonders about Laika and an ideal vision of Ingemar and his mother at a beach where he is making her laugh enough to put down the book she is reading. This vision becomes more and more idealized after her death.
The major themes of his growth are built upon the symbolic association with Laika, his belief that when he would be reunited with his own dog, Sickan (it might have been too obvious to name the dog “Sick”an as a symbol) that his family would be together again, and the fact that he shares a name with the most famous Swede boxer of those days.
Ingemar and his Uncle are building a one room summer house that when finished with the pitched roof looks like a rocketship. It’s this house that Ingemar will lock himself in at the beginning of the film that we will spend most of the rest of the film in flashback. There’s also an inventor in town who builds Ingemar and his friend a spaceship contraption that they are supposed to ride over a street on a rope. Like Laika, the first attempt gets them stuck in “space” over the road until they can be rescued. Ingemar is Laika – stranded away from home.
It is Ingemar’s stubborn refusal to believe that anything bad could have happened to his dog Sickan that leads to his having to come to terms with his Mother’s death. In the village, he has a budding love interest with Saga. She’s completely the opposite of the girl he left behind in his hometown. She wore dresses and had long blonde hair in curls. Saga has short, dark hair and tries to pass for a boy so she can play soccer. And she happens to be the best boxer in town. When Saga gets in a fight over his attentions with another girl – Ingemar resorts to barking instead of talking. In her frustration, Saga challenges him to a boxing match. It’s during this match that she tells him that his dog is dead. It’s through his boxing match with her that he can finally accept his mother’s death. Saga will help him move on to the next stage of his life. The film ends on a touching moment that ties together the boxing theme – as his namesake Ingemar Johansson is having the moment of his life by knocking out Flyd Patterson, the two have fallen asleep on the couch in front of the radio.
This movie succeeds because Lasse Halstrom knows just how to balance the lightness of the eccentric characters against the main themes of the film. The story never loses focus but there is plenty of time to lighten the dark mood. A film about a boy losing his mother can become overbearing. But the director allows for us to see Ingemar lust after Berit as she models nude – eventually crawling on to the roof to see her naked breasts. These respites are something that aren’t allowed to breathe as much in his future films like Chocolat. Laika was the first dog into space but that accomplishment meant little since he was not given a way to return home. Ingemar has found that path home. As he sleeps on the couch with Saga, we leave him feeling like he’s found a new home.
The Blu-ray release contains much of the previous DVD release including an essay by Kurt Vonnegut, trailer, and the 52-minute short film from the early Seventies “Shall We Go to My or Your Place or Each Go Home Alone?” that doesn’t really show off the mastery he would have over story and character in 1985. The high-definition transfer is nice but I still saw quite a bit of graininess especially in the night scenes.