‘My Life As a Dog’ Has a Gentle Bite

Lasse Hallström’s My Life As a Dog renders the anxieties of coming of age in tender, nostalgic terms.

There’s never a lack of films about childhood, but there certainly has been a dearth of those that offer a well-considered account of that time of our lives. More often than not, the subject seems calculated to tug at the audience’s heartstrings, as if our coming of age was an unbroken sequence of pleasure rather than a complex mixture of emotions.

The best tales about growing up incorporate the anxieties of childhood. The fact that the world does not altogether make sense to a child or does so only based on the individual’s fantasies and psychological projections finds ample material in works that take on the guise of the supernatural or the fantastic. Lasse Hallström’s 1985 drama, My Life As a Dog (Mitt liv som hund) renders such anxieties in tender, nostalgic terms. The newly released Criterion Collection edition offers a letterboxed transfer, newly translated subtitles, and the director’s reminiscence on the work that established his career.

Now known in the States for his bittersweet literary adaptations, such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) and The Cider House Rules (1999), Hallström began his career in his native Sweden as a video director, crafting all the cinematic representations of Abba’s career. My Life as a Dog was his first film to reach an international audience.

As much as his American films have been critically and commercially successful, My Life As a Dog may well remain, as Hallström admits in the interview on this Criterion DVD, his most resonant work. Based on a novel by Reidar Jönsson, the story depicts the coming of age of a bumbling and well-intentioned young boy, Ingemar Johansson (Anton Glanzelius). Fatherless, the boy’s family is further troubled by his mother’s illness, which necessitates that Ingemar and his brother, Erick (Manfred Serner), be farmed out to relatives while she recuperates. Much as Ingemar regrets leaving behind his family, he equally mourns the need to put his beloved pet dog in a kennel.

Ingemar finds himself drawn into the family of his uncle (Tomas von Brömssen), who works in the glass factory that serves as the central employer in his small rural town. He quickly immerses himself in the community, becoming part of the football team his uncle coaches and making friends with his peers. His most important new friend is Saga (Melinda Kinnaman), a tomboy who plays football as aggressively as the boys and beats all comers in the boxing ring.

My Life As a Dog deftly shifts from one episode in Ingemar’s new life to another, developing its narrative by atmosphere more than plot. Over time, Ingemar gradually comes to terms with his mother’s mortality as well as the discovery that his dog has been put to sleep in the kennel. His ability to come to terms with calamity and accept the inherent instability of existence makes this boy sympathetic and memorable.

Hallström encapsulates this maturity through Ingemar’s voiceover. The film’s title references his meditation upon the dog sent up into space by the Soviets, who was to give his life in the service of scientific advancement. Gradually, Ingemar begins to understand that his own passage through life is no less hazardous but equally marvelous as this animal’s exploration of the heavens.

Still, the film never settles on a single point of view. It sometimes leaves points dangling or allows minor characters to take center stage, only to have them dissolve back into the mass of the community. My Life As a Dog is silly, morose, lyrical, and bleak. Unlike so many films about growing up, it leaves us with the sense that if Ingemar never fully understands or comes to terms with all he confronts, he acquires a sense of inner balance and perspective that will allow him to pass securely into maturity.

In Anton Glanenius, Hallström found the right individual to convey this sensibility. His performance as Ingemar is captivating. The young boy had not been in a film before, yet he took to the camera without reservation. He embodies the character’s wide-eyed engagement with life and displays a deft skill with physical comedy, as when the boy is so nervous he cannot raise a glass of milk to his lips.

Ingemar is one of those cinematic figures who remain in one’s mind long after the film ends. Like the dog whose fate fascinates and frightens him, Ingemar will journey into a future whose destination may be uncertain but will certainly be wondrous.