My Life as a Dog Review
It’s clear within minutes as to why My Life as a Dog is so widely liked. It’s a nostalgic coming of age tale shot in warm colours and told with an amiably quirky sense of humour. Set in 1950s Sweden, it is neither overly mawkish nor especially downbeat whilst its subtitles give it a ‘worthy’ arthouse cache that isn’t likely to have existed had it been made in the US. Much like Cinema Paradiso this is “world cinema” for those with no real interest in global filmmaking.
Directed by Lasse Hallström, My Life as a Dog currently occupies the mid-point of his cinematic career. It was his final Swedish film before the move to the US that would result in helming the likes of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Shipping News. Stylistically too, it exists somewhere in the middle, with the brash humour of his early Swedish comedies Father to Be and Happy We having been largely ironed out, though not to the anonymous state of such nineties efforts as Once Around and Something to Talk About. Indeed, on the surface this most distinctive of Hallström’s films would appear - paradoxically - to have the least relation to the rest of his oeuvre.
And yet if we do look under this surface (or at least attempt to do so) the similarities become abundantly clear. As with, say, The Cider House Rules, My Life as a Dog is an exercise in safe filmmaking. Just as that film moulded its themes of abortion and incest into a palatable 12 rated form, so too My Life as a Dog never really engages with the potential of its material. Certainly, as said, this means very little in the way of sentimentality - though Björn Isfält’s score tempts fate on occasion - especially as central figure Ingemar is downplayed to perfection by Anton Glanzelius, but there’s also no attempt to connect with the story’s darker aspects. His mother’s illness, for example, is never specified and she’s shoved down the cast list, whilst the question of her parental abilities (or rather lack thereof) is never fully explored. Moreover, Hallström’s penchant for quirkiness (even if it has now been entirely diluted) constantly outweighs the drama, yet this too is similarly vague and ultimately pointless. He gives us a boy with green hair simply because he can, or a unicyclist on a tightrope in the background of a glassworks.
Admittedly, there is nothing nasty about such peripheral diversions meaning that they are not quite as disagreeable as they could have been, but then this also demonstrates how absolutely everything is been viewed through the same nostalgic lens; the cinematography, unsurprisingly, favours warm yellows and soft focus. Indeed, in its episodic manner My Life as a Dog recalls similar exercises by François Truffaut and Woody Allen, L’Argent de pôche and Radio Days. Both took a equally fuzzy look at growing (though the latter’s high gag quotient makes it the more appealing) and both represent weaker moments in their respective directors’ filmographies. In contrast, though of roughly the same standard, My Life as a Dog is undoubtedly Hallström’s best.
My Life as a Dog’s previous DVD incarnation in the UK was in a non-anamorphic and slightly hazy form. Whilst the former has been improved on (and is rendered at a ratio of approximately 1.76:1), the picture quality still isn’t too great. The print itself demonstrates little in the way of damage or dirt, but is a tad on the dark side and occasionally grainy resulting in some highly visible artefacting. The image also isn’t as crisp as could be expected, though this may be the result of the photography and, as such, intentional. As for the soundtrack, the original Swedish mono is provided (over the front two channels) and accompanied with optional English subtitles. Again, the sound isn’t perhaps as crisp as it could have been, but then there is little in the way of damage and as such little to distract. However, disappointment does come with the extras as the disc is completely bereft of supplementary material. Fans of the film would do better to seek out Criterion’s Region 0 release.