I’m finally back for round two of my Criterion quest. After my violent, rewarding trudge through The Seventh Seal, I figured I might change it up and go a little more modern. So this week I’m going to cover My Life as a Dog, directed by Lasse Hallström. Some may find his English language work a little more familiar, as it holds entries like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, and Chocolat.
I’ve definitely had some experience with Hallström’s work before, but going back to his roots is a different beast altogether, as his work has become more and more mainstream over the past decade. That being said, the tone of My Life as a Dog holds much in common with What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
My Life as a Dog is the story of Ingemar, a young boy surrounded by very adult problems whose ways of coping are a little out of the ordinary. Specifically, he often compares his situation with ones that are much more tragic but so disconnected from his life that they seem to pose no danger or alternately, in times of extreme turmoil, he’ll pretend to be a dog to escape his human life altogether. This kind of film—one of the ones where the trigger incident is a child’s mother becoming deathly ill—can often be too heart-wrenching and troubling to watch, but My Life as a Dog takes a slightly different approach. The story is told from Ingemar’s perspective, so he does not always have a full understanding of the implications of what’s going on around him, let alone the impact of some of the more hurtful events in the film. The whole plot is delivered with a kind of quaintness and wonder. Ingemar chooses to focus on the freshness of life, like having to move in with his uncle and the changes of moving from adolescence to his early teens rather than the conflicts that might otherwise break him.
This whimsical tone is supported strongly by the score across the whole film, but also in places by “breaks” in the narrative to focus by a voiceover combined with flashback. The narrator’s version of Ingemar seems to have a sense of remorse that the character we see on screen does not. But the acting also displays a level of comfort with his situation—whatever it is—long after the events on screen.
The plot of the film isn’t incredibly dynamic. It’s essentially the coming-of-age tale we’ve seen elsewhere. Ingemar has to learn to function without the family he once had, as well as develop new “family” in the town around him. He has a blossoming relationship with Saga, a tomboy with whom he doesn’t quite understand his feelings. He develops a friendship with a twenty-something beauty, but here his emotions seemed to be muddled as well. Really, Ingemar can only mimic the actions of the swooning men around her rather than do what might be appropriate for a boy his age. What sets the movie apart from similar stories is the voice Hallström brings to the tale. There’s a real love for the oddities of humanity—characters who always feel slightly off-kilter from the norm, but who form such clear bonds that the sense of family develops no matter what.
The best moment in the film is one of its subtlest. What may be the most important and impactful moment of Ingemar’s life is treated much like everything else in his life—with a type of avoidance. A scene focusing on a conversation about a jacket is packed full of meaning in every frame. While we see Ingemar and his mother avoiding what they need to say in the literal sense, we know that everything that needs to be said is still visibly pervasive.
My Life as a Dog isn’t a riveting, plot-driven film, but it is a sweet and often funny story nonetheless. It’s definitely worth a look for anyone who likes coming of age tales.
Film Aficionado Points*: 6.7
*(Number of film buff brownie points won for having seen it. 1 being Gigli; 10 being Citizen Kane.)