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My Life As A Dog

My Life As A Dog(1985)

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You wouldn't expect a semi-black comedy about a morose Swedish pre-teen to become a sleeper hit in American movie theaters, but that's exactly what happened to Lasse Hallstrom's My Life as a Dog back in 1983. Hallstrom - who's become something of a Miramax Pictures go-to-guy over the years, with such Oscar-nominated films as The Cider House Rules (1999) and Chocolat (2000) now under his belt - established his trademark blend of charm and existential despair with a coming-of-age story that grows more deeply romantic upon repeated viewings.

The film's original Fox Lorber DVD release was a nuts-and-bolts affair that suffered from a relatively faded print. Now, My Life as a Dog gets the royal treatment, with a two-disc Criterion release that's overflowing with must-see extras, and features a pristine high-definition transfer.

Hallstrom tosses just the right amounts of sentiment and world-weariness into the story of Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius), a Swedish 11-year old in the late 1950s who can't win for losing...not that he tries very hard to stay out of trouble. He spends his time running wild, getting into mischief and fearing for his mother's life. No wonder his voice-over musings focus on such disasters as the fate of Laikka, the doomed Russian space dog. This kid badly needs a break.

Young Ingemar is eventually too much for his dying mother to handle, so he's shipped off to the countryside to live with his aunt and eccentric Uncle Gunnar (Tomas von Bromssen). There, Ingemar will travel a twisted road of self-discovery that leads to sweetly understated lessons in friendship, family, death, and sexuality. Both Glazelius and Melinda Kinnaman (as Ingemar's sparring-partner/first love) give remarkable performances, naturalistic wonders that once again suggest that the best approach to film acting is to start doing it before you understand the process.

The movie is presented in the wide screen anamorphic format, as it should be to fully capture the warm beauty of cinematographer Jorgen Persson's images. The sound mix is as crisp as can be expected throughout, with a bit of audible hiss, but not enough to distract from one's enjoyment of the film. Included in the extras are a video interview with Hallstrom, in which he discusses the autobiographical elements of My Life as a Dog, and admits to getting his start directing music videos for the pop group, ABBA! There's also an essay by film critic Michael Atkinson, as well as a piece by Kurt Vonnegut, whose childlike sense of wonder and dread seems a direct antecedent to Hallstrom's work. This film is ripe for personal interpretation, and Vonnegut's essay - a rare piece of new writing from an aging master - is an enjoyable read.

Perhaps the most fascinating bonus for My Life as a Dog fans will be the inclusion of Shall We Go to My Place or Each Go Home Alone, a loose-limbed 52-minute TV film Hallstrom shot in 1973 that seems greatly influenced by early Robert Altman. It's a graceful, funny little story about the Swedish dating scene that contains several flashes of Hallstrom's later wall-to-wall sparkle. It's well worth a look if you're a fan of concise, character-driven storytelling. Given how young he was when it was filmed, Hallstrom should be proud of it.

For more information about the DVD special edition of My Life as Dog, visit The Criterion Collection web site. To order My Life as a Dog, visit TCM Shopping.

by Paul Tatara