Lasse Hallström seems to have an affinity with pups, recently in cinemas with A Dog’s Purpose and before that, there was the utterly heartbreaking Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009). It all began, however, with his first feature 1985’s My Life as a Dog (Mitt liv som hund) which has now been transferred from original film to High Definition Blu-ray by Arrow Academy.
Based on Reidar Jönsson’s autobiographical novel, the film is set in late fifties Sweden and centres upon Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius); a gentle soul, if a little eccentric. He’s ‘married’ to a local girl (by cutting his thumb and having her suck the blood), gets his penis stuck in a bottle during a sex education class, and displays a slight tremor when drinking. Ingemar is twelve. He’s also attempting to live life as normally as possible while his terminally ill mother (Anki Lidén) screams bloody murder at her two sons, and fades slowly awaiting her final days.
Ingemar likens himself to Laika – the Soviet dog that was sent up into space, launched on a one-way trip aboard Sputnik 2, and ultimately left to die. Big feelings for a child who’s convinced things could be worse and one day he’ll be happy as he is packed off to spend the summer with Uncle Gunnar (Tomas von Brömssen) and Aunt Ulla (Kicki Rundgren), and the wonderfully unconventional cast of characters who inhabit Småland. There’s Manne (Jan-Philip Hollström), the boy with green hair, Saga (Melinda Kinnaman) the girl obsessed with boxing and football whose burgeoning breasts are tightly bound so she can stay on the team. Ailing Mr Arvidsson (Didrik Gustavsson) who lives in the basement of Gunnar’s house and likes to be read the lingerie catalogue, in order to silence the persistent roof-hammering of Fransson (Magnus Rask). He’s convinced the noisy neighbour wants to finish him off via the knock-knock-knocking of the metal head against wood. Even Uncle Gunnar with his cleavage obsession and his old vinyl copy of ‘I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts’ (which he plays on repeat) is a tad awkward and sweetly peculiar.
Regardless of their character traits there’s warmth and sincerity and real affection for our young protagonist despite being left at kennel after kennel, never completely wanted by anybody. It’s a remarkable performance by Anton Glanzelius) whose range, sensitivity and affecting depth belies his age and impish grin. While not as dark a piece as Cría Cuervos (1976), it does deal with a lot of the same issues and rests on the young shoulders of its lead(s), as the loss of innocence hits profoundly and they find themselves thrust somewhat prematurely into adulthood. Cinema Paradiso (1988) would follow – and would nicely round off this highly recommended triple-bill – even the US-produced October Sky (1999), clearly took some of its cues and hues from this Academy Award nominated Swedish film.
Hallström has made many pictures since 1985 and there has always been a gentility to his oeuvre, whether he’s dealing with ABBA, cider, chocolate, or Grapes and this bittersweet film extolling the virtues of rural communities and growing pains is no different. This is a warm, whimsical, funny and moving tale of a boy and his search for family; a place he can call home. Canines aside, My Life as a Dog is Lasse’s masterpiece.