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Hollywood has been importing talented European filmmakers at least since the early twenties, when Victor Sjöström and Ernst Lubitsch heeded the siren wail of Tinseltown resources, and their work there has tended to quickly obscure the cultural memory of the films that originally got them noticed. As it was with those august old-schoolers, and subsequent émigrés from Douglas Sirk to Roman Polanski to John Woo, so it is with Lasse Hallström: the Swedish filmmaker’s big-budget, Oscar-prone American films—symptomatically, The Cider House Rules (1999), Chocolat (2000), and The Shipping News (2001)—have come to loom in renown over his original worldwide profile maker, My Life as a Dog (1985), which remains one of the greatest of all films about children.
Hallström’s oeuvre has unmistakable themes—the passage of the innocent outsider through an alien social landscape and, contrastingly, the power of human idiosyncrasy within those societies. In effect, it’s a perspective generous to everything it surveys, and My Life as a Dog is the most generous film Hallström has ever made. At the same time, it’s far from sentimental, exploring—as all memorable movies about childhood do (Hallström’s movie rounds out a brief list that also includes Zéro de conduite, The Curse of the Cat People, The 400 Blows, Empire of the Sun, Ponette, and Ratcatcher)—the contentious endeavor to understand, or at least withstand, the bulldozing machinations of the adult world. There are few subjects as universal and resonant in movies as this heartbreaking dynamic, because the primary issues that so cruelly devastate childhood’s pure hopefulness are the classic bugbears of human culture: sex and death. In My Life as a Dog, these twin dynamos of Blakean “experience” shake the world of grade-schooler Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius), tearing at his modest life’s fabric like hurricane winds. With his consumptive mother rapidly approaching her deathbed, Ingemar is shunted aside—resulting in one stress-magnifying disaster after another as the elfin, tic-ridden boy attempts to make sense of his daily existence—and eventually displaced altogether, to his uncle’s semirural factory burg, where everybody and everything seem focused on the urges, suppressions, and buddings of sexual cognizance.
Fueled by loss and irrational desire, this community is a naturally disorienting realm. Ingemar himself is a hopelessly tragic figure, particularly for viewers with children, for whom My Life as a Dog can be a tribulation. The depiction of a child’s psychology—Ingemar narrates throughout about maintaining “a certain distance” from his troubles by contemplating fortunes worse than his, like the fate of a Russian space-program dog who was left to starve in orbit—is wise and subtly applied. (The metaphoric association with dogs—who are also helplessly subject to the heartless whims of grown-ups—is sobering.) Ingemar emerges a fully 3-D child for whom events can be monumentally terrible, utterly confusing, and hilarious all at once; there is no predicting how he will react to his experiences. Glanzelius, as Hallström directed him, is a behavioral miracle—you see his good intentions, denial, bizarre ideas, dogged efforts at reasoning out life, and impulses toward anarchic payback all bounce off each other like lottery ping-pong balls, and eventually take control of his actions.
In contrast to typical Hollywood films, the movie contemplates character, behavior, and experience for their own sakes, not in the service of arc or narrative revelation or simplistic heroism. Thus, the community in which Ingemar finds himself as his mother fades, and after his beloved pet dog vanishes, is an enormously complex and convincing bounty of overgrown roads, bustling glassworks, cavernous barns, bizarre mechanics’ shops, and half-constructed houses. Likewise, its unpredictable, working-class inhabitants are acrobats, daffy inventors, soccer players, woodworkers, nude models, and ice swimmers. But Hallström never dwells on eccentricity—these lives and this place are only fragmentarily known to us, just as they are to Ingemar, and therefore the film’s achievement is something like the evocation of real life, as it happens, for the most part, beyond our ken.
However much the village’s comic texture might suggest the patronizing small-town wackiness of Fellini’s Amarcord in outline (not to mention the scads of international quirky-pageant-of-life imitators My Life as a Dog has been responsible for), Hallström’s movie isn’t a feel-good endorphin flood. The suffering is palpable. At home, Ingemar is an accident that never stops happening, and his miserable mother does little but scream, groan, and disappear into books. Ingemar may idealize her in his memory, but Hallström doesn’t, and this is vital to the film’s power; the mother is so overwhelmed by her disease and imminent death that she has lost the capacity to sacrifice her feelings for her child’s sake. The boy’s eventual sobbing cry into his pillow, “Why did you not want me, Mama?” is a brutal question the film doesn’t try to answer—unless the simple demonstrated knowledge of human ambiguity under pressure is answer enough.
Still, My Life as a Dog is a stubbornly affectionate and often lyrical film. Hallström backdrops Ingemar’s narrational asides about the misery of others with a vision of a star-filled night sky as a child might see it lying on his or her back, imagining the plight of that Russian dog. The film’s visual sense is organically realist: whole scenes are swallowed in one shot, seen from a slight distance, so that the characters and the environment can be experienced without manipulation. Simple, patient images, like of Ingemar huddled on a bench in a wide hospital hall after visiting his mother’s sickroom, have an impact no amount of hyperactive editing and emphatic mega-close-ups, in the American style, could approximate. When the child disembarks from the train that has carried him back to his uncle’s town after finally being orphaned, we can barely see him for all of the steam and snow, until his lovable, irreverent uncle runs to meet him, picks him up, and stands embracing him selflessly in the cold. It’s a film about people shaped by people, by the rhythms of their behavior and feelings, and in this, My Life as a Dog belongs to a tradition beginning with Jean Renoir, a sensibility that has been explored precious little since and may very well be expiring. What could be more fundamental as a cinematic substance than the truly observed properties of our fellow humans?
Michael Atkinson writes regularly for the Village Voice, In These Times, Sight & Sound, and TCM.com. His latest books are Excile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (Suny Press) and two novels, Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat, both from St. Martin's Press. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection's 2003 DVD edition of My Life as a Dog.