Mitt liv som hund
**½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B
starring Anton Glanzelius, Tomas von Brömssen, Anki Lidén, Melinda Kinnaman
screenplay by Lasse Hallström & Reidar Jönsson & Brasse Brännström & Per Berglund, based on the novel by Reidar Jönsson
directed by Lasse Hallström
by Angelo Muredda Before Oscar powerbrokers Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein entrusted their yearly contenders to can't-fail Stephen Daldry, there was Lasse Hallström. A three-time Academy award nominee whose Chocolat is still roundly (and somewhat unfairly, given the company of trash like Crash) dismissed as one of the most undeserving Best Picture nominees of recent years, Hallström best encapsulates the notion, popular in Oscar-watching circles, of the "fifth nominee": the uncelebrated contender who presumably just made the cut. Consecutive star-studded nonstarters like The Shipping News and An Unfinished Life--which, lest we forget, quasi-romantically paired a maimed Morgan Freeman with the existentially-troubled bear who gored him--have dimmed his reputation considerably since then, but Hallström has nevertheless assured himself a strange place in American filmmaking (not least because he is Swedish) as simultaneously one of the most-awarded and least-loved directors of the Miramax era of upmarket indies.
In that regard, he's always been an odd fit for the Criterion Collection, which prefers its Scandinavian directors more formally adventurous and uncorrupted by the middlebrow tastes of the Academy. Yet My Life as a Dog, a crossover hit that made nearly 10 million dollars stateside and earned Hallström two of those three nominations, is not entirely out of place next to coming-of-age entries like Ratcatcher or, in its magical realist flourishes and chilly Swedish environs, Fanny & Alexander. The first of Hallström's many literary adaptations (the source this time co-screenwriter Reidar Jönsson's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name), it's also the best--an odd and sometimes mawkish but moving account of a rudderless 12-year-old boy's maturation in concert with the strange environments to which he's callously shipped by a succession of failed guardians. While the film is cheapened by the self-conscious quirkiness that would resurface in oddball catalogues like What's Eating Gilbert Grape, there's also a refreshing prickliness here, a cold streak that keeps things watchable.
The title refers in part to the film's underlying structural conceit, whereby young protagonist Ingemar (unaffected non-actor Anton Glanzelius) periodically looks up to the stars and surmises that things aren't so bad, at least not compared to the crummy hand dealt to fellow beings like Laika, the Soviet space dog who died mid-orbit. ("For human progress," Ingemar notes sadly.) True, Laika had it rough, but Ingemar's life is similarly bestial: Deemed a distraction by his tubercular and, worse, severely depressed mother (Anki Lidén, suitably opaque), Ingemar is shipped off without much thought to the countryside and entrusted to Uncle Gunnar (Tomas von Brömssen). Gunnar's kind, and so are the locals, who include a secretly filthy moribund old man living downstairs (Didrik Gustavsson) and enigmatic playmate Saga (Melinda Kinnaman), an androgynous girl posing as a boy to stay on the soccer team. But before long Ingemar is shuttled back home, only to discover he's once again at the whims of his mother's illness and mercurial temperament.
Much of the movie's pathos comes from the nicely unforced connection between Ingemar's condition as a sort of permanent exile and that of his own dog, first ditched in a kennel and later deemed unmentionable and permanently off-the-grid, like poor Laika. Hallström might have played this up as an animal fable, complete with pithy maxims, but to his credit, he's more interested in exploring how children and pets may both be reduced to their bottom line in the hardscrabble world of these working-class adults. Gentle as Uncle Gunnar is, the film is shrewd about how Ingemar necessarily strikes him as variously one more mouth to feed and one less free room in the house. Glanzelius is heartbreaking in quiet moments when the vulnerability of this position becomes clear to Ingemar, whether it's when his mother gives him a robotic compliment on his jacket and then a stiff farewell nod or when his uncle fiddles distractedly with a new TV while he urgently asks about getting his old dog back. Ingemar talks to us in voiceover about the cosmic link between himself and the astronaut dog, we think, because no one has listened to him in years.
Sobering as this view of childhood is, My Life as a Dog is still of course a Lasse Hallström movie, thus this cruelty won't stand. To keep things light, then, we're solicited to clap admiringly for the hilarious defining traits of a boatload of lovable freaks. It's not enough, for example, that Ingemar is painfully lonely and prone to barking like a dog when stressed--he must also swirl his milk around and splash it in his face before drinking it. It's also insufficient that the beautiful lone female worker (Ing-Marie Carlsson) at the glassworks where Uncle Gunnar toils away turns out to be a fine confidante: she must also invite Ingemar to nightly sketching parties, where her artist lover captures her nude and heavily contorted body for an outré sculpture that's improbably bound for this provincial community's town hall. ("I want to catch the movement as you kiss the baby," he directs her, unhelpfully.) Even Saga's potentially interesting gender ambivalence must be exposed as a character quirk and, finally, a joke. Once her visibly budding breasts rule her out for the all-male soccer team, she quickly adopts a dress and, we're meant to assume, unambiguous heterosexual girlhood--just in time to date Ingemar without any of that queer business getting in the way.
The ironic sentimentalism of these character vignettes--how adorable everyone is! and how unreal--is surely meant to provide Ingemar with a number of comic foils against whom he might define himself. Mostly, though, it attests to Hallström's half-hearted investment in the bleakness of Ingemar's world, his inability to stay the course without throwing to a country eccentric. Some of these diversions are charming enough; I like Uncle Gunnar's improbably stern coach's advice to the soccer team: "Samba in the legs, just like we talked about." Coupled with Björn Isfält's incessantly lilting, Terms of Endearment-lite score, alas, this forced comic touch hollows out a poignant bildungsroman that otherwise needn't be ashamed to have its spine filed next to The 400 Blows.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion brings My Life as a Dog to Blu-ray in a presentation that upgrades the film to 1080p while porting a supplementary package intact from the company's 2003 DVD release. Pillarboxed at 1.66:1, the transfer is strong, improving on the SD version largely in terms of texture, which pays off handsomely in Ingemar's country visits: the detail on the knit Christmas sweaters alone could be worth a double-dip for the sartorially inclined. Grain is carefully preserved, though the image is quite noisy at times, with early moments in Ingemar's bedroom looking like they were shot through a fine honeycomb screen. Audio consists of a robust lossless mono track (LPCM) in the original Swedish: no hissing or popping, dialogue is always clear.
Special features are on the scant side given the fairly exorbitant SRP (and relative to similarly light Criterion discs). First up is a decent 18-minute interview with Hallström from 2002, upscaled to 1080i. The director seems quite taken with this film and with himself, frequently praising his capacity to push actors towards realism by reminding them to "do less." Things brighten considerably when he's put on the defensive by the absent interviewer. He clearly has a chip on his shoulder from the at-the-time fresh accusations that Miramax bought Chocolat its Oscar nominations, and makes a concentrated effort to characterize his work as staying "on the right line of sentiment and sentimentality." Sure. He also suggests he'll have the last laugh against his critics, who mocked his humble beginnings as a maker of ABBA videos. While "being affiliated with them was like being affiliated with evil," he admits, their legacy is undisputable. Again: sure.
Far more involving is Hallström's "Shall We Go to Your or My Place or Each Go Home Alone?" (52 mins., 1080i), a made-for-Swedish-TV short from 1972 with an optional video introduction by the director. Its tight close-ups and improvisatory performances offer a strong counterpoint to Hallström's better-known work, and its story of three friends pitifully selling themselves to their prospective dates at a nightclub is enjoyably cynical, albeit a shade moralistic. Criterion rounds things out, as usual, with a pair of print extras in a beautifully designed, minimalist booklet riffing off the space motif. First up is a smart if overly charitable essay on My Life as a Dog by VILLAGE VOICE critic Michael Atkinson, who does a good job situating it in terms of other films about childhood. ("Hallström never dwells on eccentricity," he writes, not as convincingly.) Next is an appreciation by the late Kurt Vonnegut, who mostly summarizes the plot and adds that it was his favourite movie as well as Steven Wright's. Noted. Originally published: October 18, 2011.