Criterion // 1985 // 101 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Rogers (Retired) // October 5th, 2011
"Life is hard sometimes. It's not easy to be left alone."
The vivacity and awkwardness of youth beautifully captured on film. Joining the likes of Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Takeshi Kitano's Kikujiro, Lasse Hallström's My Life as a Dog is an honest portrait of youthful innocence tempered by the harsh realities of human nature and life itself. It's also kind of funny.
Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius, Husbonden) has two things in his life: his mom and his dog. He may get picked on by some of the other kids, especially his older brother, but he's still at that point where digging through the dirt can yield hours of enjoyment. As his mother slowly dies, Ingemar is sent packing to his uncle's house in the country. There, he comes to realize the eccentricities of these townsfolk and how he finally seems to fit in. But with tragedy, Ingemar must come to terms with the reality of the world around him, and what it means to truly be human.
How do you define a masterpiece? For me it's hard to say, once you get outside of genre pictures and their conventions. There is the performance of the actors, the complexity of the screenplay, the photography, the director's encompassing vision. When taken like that, as a multitude of complex visions and influences that combine to create a work of art, things can get confusing when trying to trace your reasons for being touched by a certain film.
After years of watching films in dark classrooms and messy bedrooms, I came to my own sort of working definition for a 'masterpiece' within the specific confines of drama, and it's not that a film needs to be flawless (an impossibility). Instead, I view a dramatic masterpiece as a film that redefines the way I look at some aspect of the world or myself. Simply put, when I walk out of that cramped room and into the sunlight, I need to experience some sort of profound sense of happiness or alienation with my surroundings. I can either spend the long walk back to my car with a smile on my face, soaking up the sunlight and thinking to myself for the first time in a long time what a beautiful world we live in. Or I can sulk to my car wondering how humanity can be so cruel and unforgiving and how I've found myself having to toil under its thumb. Either way, these two differing experiences are borne from watching a true piece of cinema, an indelible masterpiece of the dramatic medium. My Life as a Dog is a film that brings out both of these feelings in the viewer; many times in the span of a scene.
Hallström's focus is on a young Swedish boy named Ingemar who is still very much a bewildered child with a sense for adventure. But he's also on the cusp of adulthood; consumed by thoughts of sex, death, pain and suffering. It's a terrible state of affairs that everyone can relate to because we've all gone through it. The first time you come face to face with the idea of death as a child it torments you endlessly as you try and make your naive mind grasp the concept. It consumes you, makes you jaded, and forces you to grow up much faster than you'd like. Everyone still carries that sense of regret for having to abandon the simplicity of childhood innocence in order to grow up. With Ingemar, he still wants to be a child in the eyes of his mother but she's dying and can't control Ingemar's youthful outbursts anymore.
It would be easy for Hallström to make his film sentimental by having this mother character be the epitome of a caring motherly figure, one that we're forced to watch wither away. But she's flawed. She copes with her imminent death by ignoring her two kids and escaping into her books. She becomes unhinged any time her kids act like kids and sends them away so she can have a final moment of peace. The only moments we get of her as that sublime mother figure are in fragments of Ingemar's memories where he reflects on how he's disappointed her. But she's not a great mother by Hollywood's definition; she's a real mom, a flawed yet ultimately caring figure. It's what keeps the film feeling realistic instead of a traditionally sappy melodrama. And when Ingemar finds out that his last tenuous grasp on his innocence, his dog Sicka, was put down instead of brought to a kennel like he was told, the boy must finally accept the reality of life and its hardships. He doesn't wallow in misery for the remainder of the film. He stands up and accepts what he's been given.
Throughout My Life as a Dog there are segments of narration by Ingemar that are juxtaposed against shots of outer-space. With the stars standing in as a representation of Ingemar's child-like whimsy and fascination, the boy maturely reflects on the hardships of his own life compared to people who have had it harder; most notably that of Laika, the famous Soviet space dog who was shot up into space and left to starve to death. It's a sobering reflection on the nature of a child's inherent submissiveness to an authoritative figure; that absence of free will. The message is made even stronger when we consider that it's coming from the mouth of such an articulated boy. It's a subtle narration device that's masterfully used.
These are incredibly mature and complex issues being dealt with here through the perspective of a child. It gives the narrative thrust more gravitas to deal with the nature of humanity in such a relatable fashion. And what makes the film a masterpiece, besides Hallström's divinely simplistic direction and a screenplay populated by vastly interesting and off-beat characters, is the performance by Anton Glanzelius as Ingemar. I can't think of a more natural performance by a child actor in the history of cinema. Ingemar is far from a perfect child. He's manic, troublesome, impulsive, and a massive handful. And yet you care for him because Glanzelius infuses his character with a sense of believability in the way that the actor balances the innate youthful energy and naivety of his character with the more dramatic demands of the role. Under that playful grin and the cowlicks you can sense an old soul. The child actor doesn't struggle to feel organic and that's the film's strongest aspect. It may be a cliché to say but it truly is a performance that has to be seen to be believed.
In order to appreciate My Life as a Dog even further, Criterion has given us a reasonably strong 1.66:1 1080p transfer. The film relies heavily on rustic browns and pastoral greens and the image handles these mostly well. There's a great grain structure throughout and there are moments where the vibrancy of the image is astounding, if not the best Criterion has put out. Sadly, the black levels are incredibly inconsistent and murky. Some of the darker scenes are muddled to the point of madness and there are a couple of scenes that appear very soft. This seems to be an issue with the original film itself and not Criterion's transfer though. The monaural audio track is similarly well captured. It's a very dialogue heavy film and none of it gets swallowed up by any of the other sounds coming through the single channel. It's a great balance between dialogue, ambiance, and music.
In terms of the special features, there's an interview with Lasse Hallström where he discusses his previous films and the novel this film was based on. There's also a theatrical trailer for the film, and two essays enclosed in your standard Criterion insert. Michael Atkinson's "Child's-Eye View" delves into the psychology of Ingemar and his relation with those things around him. It's a nicely written piece that helps to flesh out the complex performance by Anton Glanzelius. There's also a piece by Kurt Vonnegut called "A Sweet Operation." It's a light and breezy read that also has that patented Vonnegut wit. It goes over how a film like this, with its complex issues about childhood and life in general, can be so accessible to audiences.
But the biggest addition on this disc by Criterion is Hallström's early 52-minute feature Shall We Go to My or Your Place or Each Go Home Alone complete with an introduction by the director. It's a great little piece of filmmaking about three friends who try different tactics to get laid. It comes off as breezy but it has some heft to it. It's really nice to watch to see how the director has matured.
As it stands, My Life as a Dog is a poignant drama that also has a gleeful streak to it. It isn't forced or overly sentimental like so many other films of this ilk. It's about as simplistically perfect as they come.
Hallström has never been the most challenging foreign director to come along, let alone from Sweden itself. His films tend to be emotional crowd pleasers that straddle the line between tackling complex existential issues and being narratively and visually simplistic. But it's a formula that works and My Life as a Dog is his best film. Better than The Shipping News, better than The Cider House Rules and this is largely because he has populated his film with such amazing character actors and eccentrics and then anchored it all by one of the strongest child performances of all time.
My Life as a Dog has to be seen.
Criterion has given this masterpiece a very good Blu-ray release and insured that people will be appreciating this film for a long time to come.
Review content copyright © 2011 Patrick Rogers; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Swedish)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Bonus Film