My Life as a Dog (1985)

Review

My Life as a Dog is a nostalgic slice of the life of a child in welfare-state Sweden in the 1950s. Young Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius) is slightly quiet, slightly troubled, slightly mischievous — pretty much a typical kid. He has always been close to his mother (Anki Liden, in a very good performance). But now she is dying of TB. So he is sent away to the country to live with his likeable uncle Gunnar (the equally likeable Tomas von Brömssen) in Smaland, amongst a cast of crazy Swedish townspeople and a new bunch of kids.

For some reason, during the 1980s many European directors finally became interested in making technically competent and emotionally involving films — for the first time. My Life as a Dog is a transitional work in the evolution of continental cinema — there are still moments of home-movie sloppiness, slow-paced nostalgia, and self-indulgent pseudo-profundity, and enough sex gags to satisfy European audiences. But Lasse Hallström’s film also contains insight, humor, intelligence, and warmth, and his direction is graceful and effective.

Unfortunately, this film brought Hallström international fame and he now directs big-screen adaptations of atrociously bad American fiction (John Irving’s The Cider House Rules and Annie Proulx’s awful The Shipping News).

There are some very nice moments of depth and verisimilitude in this movie — especially the kids’ fights and games, and the jousting between sexually precocious girls over the oblivious Ingemar. Some things about the movie are a little confusing, like the ending, but life is confusing when you’re a kid. By the end of the movie, you care enough about the characters to want a sequel, even though life probably goes on predictably for them in Smaland.

Like most European films, My Life as a Dog also contains some very bizarre scenes, in which Ingemar barks like a dog and Uncle Gunnar crawls around on the floor trying to bite his wife’s clothes off. Like Falco records, these scenes are a reminder that — in spite of their moral self-righteousness and two millennia of civilization — Europeans are still a strange and degenerate people. (P.S. As a French-American, I can say that.) But films like My Life as a Dog give cause for hope.

Aka Mitt liv som hund.