My Life As A Dog (1987)

Swedish director Lasse Hallestrom’s career path has taken him from directing ABBA videos through an odd, but not quite “indie” path of movies including quirky films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and Cider House Rules. But one thing that seems to be apparent: The guys like dogs. And he likes making movies about dogs. And his best movies, by and large, are movies centered around dogs: Hachi: A Dog’s TaleMy Dog: An Unconditional Love Story and this year’s A Dog’s Purpose (which I wanted to see but couldn’t get to). But it all started with this 1987 film, My Life as a Dog.

The divorces do, though.

Those quickie under-the-bridge marriages never work out.

Nominated for two big Oscars—best picture and best director—despite being in Swedish, which it lost to Bernardo Bertolucci’s weirdly overrated The Last Emperor. 1987 wasn’t a shining year for the Oscars, which inexplicably featured Broadcast News and Fatal Attraction in the Best Picture category, as well as John Boorman’s Hope and Glory and Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck.

Ignored this year were Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, De Palma’s Untouchables, and Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, to say nothing of all the crowd-pleasers like Dirty Dancing, Lethal Weapon, RobocopPredator, and cult-classics like Raising Arizona and Evil Dead II. Only Princess Bride and Full Metal Jacket rank high enough to be on the IMDB top #250. Why bring all this up? A few reasons:

  1. The Academy just went to hell in the ’70s. By the ’80s, it no longer knew what a great movie was. Maybe not even a good movie.
  2. Despite that, 1987 had more than its share of movies that are still reliable at pulling in audiences.
  3. I don’t really have that much to say about My Life as a Dog.

Sometimes you see a film that’s highly regarded and you say “Huh.” Like, you just don’t get it. This wasn’t quite like that: It’s a good movie. It’s a slice-of-life/coming-of-age type story about a young boy, Ingemar, and his troubled relationship with his valitudinarian mother. His father is, allegedly, in the tropics somewhere picking bananas. Ingemar’s a bit of a weirdo with a penchant for causing trouble, and he and his brother end up in all kinds of scrapes that stress their probably dying mother out. So the two are separated and sent to live with different relatives.


What’s Swedish for “bildungsroman”?

The older brother goes to a more staid family that doesn’t think much of Ingemar at all. (Ingemar’s aunt vociferously objects to his presence, in fact.) Ingemar goes to his father’s brother’s home in Småland instead, and his uncle being a bit of a weirdo, too, the two hit it off rather famously. This little town presents the movie with its best vignettes: Ingemar learning to box and play soccer when the best athlete is a girl named Saga (who disguises herself as a boy); the Småland glassworks in which he endears himself to Berit (an Anita Ekberg-like beauty whom his uncle lusts after); her “chaperoning” of same as the local sculptor uses her as a subject for his big project; his uncle’s building of a “summer house” which is essentially an elaborate shack (man-cave-like) but just over his property line on someone else’s land; his uncle’s love of tormenting his wife with the Swedish interpretation of “I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts”; Saga’s transition from tomboy to young woman and the subsequent channeling of her aggression; and so on.

It’s a fine film. Very Swedish, if I can be permitted a grasp of that culture through the few movies that make it to our shores. There is this mix of morbidity with an oddly (to American sensibilities) light touch, as we saw with A Man Called Ove but also even in horror-ish movies like Let The Right One In. There are—in the older films, anyway—beautiful blonde Viking women who look a little bulky in clothes—and like platonic ideals of women out of them. There is almost always a stubbornness; perhaps the sort of stubbornness needed to survive 9-month-long winters.

Oh, maybe a coincidence but: pubescent sexuality. There’s a disturbing (and fake) bottomless shot of a 13-year-old castrati in Let The Right One In and there are real topless shots of Melinda Kinnaman at 13 or 14 here. These aren’t particularly prurient shots, but these sorts of things always raise questions in my mind—artistic, moral and legal questions—that go unanswered.

Poor pup.

A boy and—well, not HIS dog, but somebody’s dog.

Dogs? Surprisingly, perhaps, there’s only one dog in the movie, and he’s not in it much. It’s pretty clear, in fact, that he’s put down when the boys are first sent away. Saga later taunts Ingemar with that when he spurns her advances.

But Ingemar is in love with dogs. He’s obsessed with Laika, the poor mutt the Soviets put up in the satellite to terrify the world. Primarily, though, it seems that the issue is that Ingemar deals with stress in his life by turning into a dog. So, there’s that. It’s a little odd and perhaps not as endearing as one might hope.

Which maybe expresses The Boy and my reaction to the whole movie. It’s a good watch but seems like an odd choice to celebrate as a 30-year-anniversary.

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