Monday, April 13, 2015

Reeling Backward: "My Life As a Dog" (1985)

"My Life As a Dog" is one of my personal touchstone films. It was one of the first foreign language movies I saw that seemed vibrant and alive, and so tantalizingly different from the standard, safe Hollywood fare of the mid-1980s.

It's not an exaggeration to say this film played a key part in my educational and career choices. Were it not for Lasse Hallström & Co., you might very well not be reading this.

"Dog" was one of the rare films not to be nominated for an Academy Award for foreign language film but receive Oscar nods in other major categories, director and adapted screenplay. Interestingly, although the film was released in its native Sweden in 1985, it didn't make it to the U.S. and U.K. until 1987, thus making it eligible for the Oscars given out in 1988.

The prestige the movie garnered allowed Hallström to segue to English-language filmmaking, where he has more or less resided ever since, producing films magical ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape"), lavishly overpraised ("The Cider House Rules") and criminally underrated ("The Shipping News").

Not bad for a guy who started out as the pet music video director for ABBA.

Watching it again for the first time in a long time, I was struck to learn that "My Life As a Dog" is based on the middle of a trio of autobiographical novels by Reidar Jönsson. That probably shouldn't have been a surprise, as the film undulates with the rhythms of real life, rather than trying to conform to a pat three-act narrative. It has a confident authenticity absent of any big show-me moments.

My memory was that the main character, Ingemar, was a very young Swedish boy, but the character is actually supposed to be 12, as he deals with the pending pressures of pubescence. Part of that's the sheer apple-cheeked nature of actor Anton Glanzelius, who was 11 when the film was made but looked closer to 7.

The story, which starts in 1958, is mostly about Ingemar's relationship with his mother, or, more accurately, his anguish over the emotional and physical abandonment he feels. His mom (Anki Lidén) is dying of tuberculosis, though the boy is in pathological denial about this. But even when she's well, she's not a particularly maternal figure, estranged from her husband and resentful of the way Ingemar and his older brother impinge on her poor health and book-reading.

The first image in the movie is a brief snippet of a summer vacation where Ingemar clowns around on the beach for his mother, who takes her nose out of her novel long enough to be delighted. It lasts only a few seconds, and is repeated several times during the movie, and thus becomes a totem of the boy's frustration about being pushed away by her.

Another recurring visual theme is a dreamy, staring shot into space with a million twinkling stars, which shows up for voiceover musings by Ingemar on a variety of topics. He's especially fixated on the fate of Laika, the Russian dog who was the first Earthling shot into space, only to die months later when her food supply ran out. Ingemar can't reconcile the fact that humans would deliberately send an animal to perish, even in the name of scientific exploration.

Again, this relates right back to his own gradual orphanhood from his mother. It's not just that some things must die, which even a child can understand, but that it was intended to die.

This also ties into the disposition of his own dog, Sickan, whom he is told is being put into a kennel when he and his brother are sent away for the summer while their mother recuperates in a sanitarium. There's a heartrending photo session of the boy and his dog posing together, amusingly resembling each other, helped by Ingemar's signature swoopy haircut.

Of course, the pet is being sent away just like the children, but on a more permanent basis.

 Interestingly, the tale Ingemar relates about Laika is actually inaccurate -- she died mere hours into her flight from heat exposure. The Soviets did disseminate a false tale about her demise, but it was that she was euthanized prior to her oxygen running out on day six. I'm sure Hallström and his fellow screenwriters, Per Berglund and Brasse Brännström, were aware of this.

But somehow, having the boy concoct his own faulty version of events and then obsess over the meaning of them only serves to make the character seem more accessible and immediate. At that age, emotional truth often prevails over strict adherence to facts.

Ingemar's summer is a completely magical experience in the pastoral province of Småland with his uncle Gunnar (Tomas von Brömssen), a carefree man-child who has a wife but no kids of his own, and works in a glass-blowing factory. The boy finds other children to play with, along with an interesting array of colorful local characters.

There's Fransson, the guy who is constantly hammering away at roof repairs, or Mr. Arvidsson, a dying old man who likes to have Ingemar read to  him from the lingerie catalog he keeps hidden under his mattress. He doesn't even look at the pictures, but enjoys the lad droning on about the new miracle fiber caressing the female form or whatnot.

There's a kid whose blond hair is tinged green from swimming in the chemical-laden ersatz pool his grandfather creates out of the factory machinery, along with a cable-fed "spaceship" whose final frontier is the cow-patty-laden field across the boulevard.

And we have Berit (Ing-Marie Carlsson), the blonde bombshell who is the object of lust by half the factory workers, especially Uncle Gunnar. When she poses nude for a local artist, and brings along Ingemar as a pint-sized chaperone and guardian of her virtue, it sends the town into a tizzy. He sees her as a combination replacement mother and receptacle of his own burgeoning curiosity in the fair gender.

Ingemar becomes best friends with Saga (Melinda Kinnaman), a girl his own age who has short hair and dresses as a boy so she can play on their football (soccer) team. It's funny because there doesn't appear to be any confusion in any of the townsfolk's minds about Saga's true gender. They all just feel compelled to go along with appearances so they don't lose their star player.

(Perhaps the ruse is intended for opposing teams.)

The relationship between the two children, the faintest beginnings of romance, is so incredibly tender and true. She feels compelled to express her affection for Ingemar via her tomboy identity, such as sparring in a barnyard boxing ring, each sharing one-half of a pair of gloves. They mostly just bump fists, though things get more heated as competitive zeal and hormone levels rise.

Saga complains about her budding breasts and how they will doom her athletic career, and enlists Ingemar in helping her tape them down. She even displays her nascent bosom to him, and the confusion on the boy's face is just priceless.

Ingemar returns home in the fall renewed with optimism, as if his positive experiences in the countryside will somehow rescue his mother's deteriorating situation. She soon passes away, without ever giving the boy any kind of sense of warmth toward him. He and his brother briefly go to live with his other uncle in the city, but Ingemar's jocular tomfoolery -- he's a born mimic and mime -- soon gets him banished.

He returns to Småland, but things have changed in winter. A Greek family has taken over most of Gunnar's house, so he has to sleep with peevish old Mrs. Arvidsson, now widowed. Fransson finally comes down off his roof, but not in a good way. The artist has become world-famous, but Berit is mortified by the sculpture he created from her naked form.

Saga is there, with more promise for both affection and conflict. When another girl makes flirtatious moves toward Ingemar, Saga is incensed but, with typical adolescent projection, directs her anger at him rather than the interloper. Having finally accepted the reality of the death of his only parent and dog, her rejection is the final blow.

"My Life As a Dog" ends on somewhat hopeful note, with the coming of spring and a renewed acceptance of everyone's roles. Ingemar finally seems ready to let go of his stubborn hold on childishness and begin the journey toward manhood. Saga starts wearing dresses and realizes that doing so won't deteriorate her identity.

Rather than a pat, happy Hollywood ending, however, this one is fulfilling not because everything ended the way it should, but because the characters evolved in a naturalistic way toward their ultimate, deserved harmony. This gem contains not a single false note.

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