Mitt liv som hund (1985)

MY LIFE AS A DOG (Mitt Liv Som Hund)

(director/writer: Lasse Hallström; screenwriters: Per Berglund/Brasse Brannstrom/Reidar Jonsson; cinematographer: Jörgen Persson; editors: Christer Furubrand/Susanne Linnman; cast: Anton Glavelius (Ingemar), Tomas Von Bromssen (Uncle Gunnar), Anki Liden (Ingemar’s Mother), Melinda Kinnaman (Saga), Kicki Rundgren (Aunt Ulla), Manfred Serner (Erik, Brother), Melinda Kinnaman (Saga), Didrik Gustavsson (Mr. Arvidsson), Vivi Johansson (Mrs. Arvidsson), Magnus Rask (Fransson), Ing-Marie Carlsson (Berit, The Artist’s Model); Runtime: 101; Svensk Filmindustri; 1985-Sweden)
“Director Halstrom has a nice touch in working with the youngster.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

My Life as a Dog is an endearing kidpic from Sweden about a 12-year-old, Ingemar (Anton Glavelius), who cutely grows on you with his devilish antics, whether flashing his curiously innocent eyes at a would-be girlfriend or smartly dressed up in a bow tie and white shirt or getting a bottle unstuck from his private part in a failed lesson on sex education he was participating in with his older brother. This is a coming-of-age film, that plays as bittersweet melodramatics. It is enlivened by how lovable Ingemar is, as he learns about life by evaluating the big events in the world and then comparing it with his own life. Ingemar is much concerned about the Soviet dog Laika being sent up in space to die for a mission the dog had no choice in undertaking and compares that event with his own pet dog who is taken from him when he is uprooted to live in the country. It’s a pleasant little film with its small aims hitting its target repeatedly, quietly reflecting the joys and sorrows the youngster must go through in order to grow up and how bland the 1950s were. The kid was influenced by dreams of space travel, new pop-up toasters, and a TV in every house.

The picture follows this intelligent child around, as he is growing up in a single parent home. Ingemar’s father is not heard from being somewhere in the tropics working on a banana boat; his mother is very sick and dying from TB, and his older brother Erik is always fighting with him. Together they get on their mother’s nerves, until she can’t bear it anymore. Finally the siblings’ mother gets so sick that she can’t look after them and they are both sent away for the summer to live with different relatives in the country. The biggest disappointment for Ingemar is that he can’t take his dog with him, it supposedly was brought to a shelter but he will never see it again. The title of the film is derived from his comparison of the fates of the Soviet dog with his dog, whereby both their lives are sacrificed without their consent.

Ingemar’s guardians are Uncle Gunnar (Tomas von Bromssen) and Aunt Ulla (Kicki Rundgren), who are simple country bumpkins, unable to talk about anything worldly but love to make small talk about the weather. He soon warms up to them and gets accepted into their small town where the uncle works in the glass factory and is fanatical about soccer, being a player himself on the local team and the coach of the boys’ school soccer team. The uncle also likes to observe the coconuts on the young ladies in town. By being very easy to talk to, with no pretenses, he thereby develops a warm and natural relationship with the youngster and makes his summer experience a joyous one.

One of Ingemar’s duties is to go to the apartment downstairs to see if the elderly Mr. Arvidsson (Didrik Gustavsson), who is confined to his bed, is doing okay. The old man gets his jollies from having Ingemar read out loud to him the women’ underwear catalogs, which he keeps hidden under his bed from his wife.

Ingemar’s summer tales involve meeting a tomboy called Saga (Melinda Kinnaman) who boxes with him, dresses like a boy to play soccer on their team, gets him to tape her growing breasts so that they won’t be noticeable, and she also yearns to have him as a boyfriend. He makes friends with a youngster who has green-colored hair and whose father builds a spacecraft that the children ride in until it crashes; he acts as a bodyguard for a well-endowed glassworker, who is posing nude for a statue of the Virgin Mother. He falls comically through the skylight of the roof as he tries to get a better view of her; he meets some of the other odd characters in town, such as the trapeze artist who can remember all the U.S. presidents even after he falls. He really has fun as he sits in the fun house his uncle is building, talking about life with his surrogate-father who is his role model. He is being initiated by his elder, as the poet Robert Bly says it is necessary to do, so that the child can be accepted into the adult male world.

Happy to be back home at the end of the summer and wanting to tell his mother everything he did, until Ingemar sadly finds that she has to be hospitalized. His mom soon dies before Ingemar can tell her what he did during the summer and give her his birthday gift, a pop-up toaster. He is then forced to return during the winter to live with his uncle again. But things are little different now. He learns again about death, as Mr. Arvidsson died. Ingemar also must now sleep in Mrs. Arvidsson new apartment because his uncle tells him there is not enough space in theirs and that it would be good for him to keep her company. But he finds much needed affection from Saga, who is behaving more like a young girl smitten by love and less like a tomboy.

Director Halstrom has a nice touch in working with the youngster, whose relationship with his uncle is priceless. The film is charming, it is sad, it is true-to-life, and never maudlin or too sugary. It’s a good nostalgia film for all those yearning to look back at their childhood, even if it be only vicariously through Ingemar. I fell for the film without being swept off my feet. The message underlying Ingemar’s experience is that life holds so much suffering, that one might as well get a few laughs out of it while one can.

The scenes that brought back bittersweet memories of the 1950s were: of the snow on the TV screen while all the neighbors are watching, the radio broadcast of the Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson landing a lucky punch and knocking out the American champ Floyd Patterson, and the fierce competition in the games the kids play.