Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallstrom has made an indelible mark in Hollywood over the past decade. His movies include the critical faves What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Shipping News, as well as Academy Award-nominated fare such as The Cider House Rules and Chocolat, two impressive films that are equally renown for both their masterful direction and craftsmanship as well as being responsible for putting Harvey Weinstein at the top of Dreamworks Studio's Crap List.
But inane Hollywood politicking aside, Hallestrom's films all share a sense of quiet dignity, a humanist celebration of triumph discovered within the will and the hearts of common people. Come to think of it, "humanist celebration" is an apt description of Mitt Liv Som Hund (My Life As A Dog). Based on the novel by Reidar Jonsson and often erroneously referred to as simply a "coming of age" story, My Life As A Dog deals with young Ingemar, a boy on the cusp of puberty whose existence is saddled by the usual questions regarding sexuality, mortality, friendship, and his own significance within a puzzling and insignificant world. As his mother lies dying of tuberculosis (and slowly being driven crazy by the annoying antics of Ingemar and his obnoxiously bullying older brother), Ingemar is shuffled off to live with his eccentric but caring uncle. His relationship with his mother, the loss of his beloved dog, his entire sense of being is called into question as a young boy is put into the position of having to delineate the actual boundaries of his own world, the relationships he forms and the emotionally-tenuous bonds that tragically must be broken.
My Life As A Dog is a film that relies heavily on its ability to evoke without provoking, to engender actual emotion and sentimentality without melodrama, generating empathy rather than sympathy. It succeeds primarily due to the powerfully affecting performance by Anton Glanzelius as Ingemar and Hallestrom's masterful direction. Hallstrom propels the story forward without muddling the audience with overwrought pathos or false emotional crescendos. There's no big "deathbed" scene. There's no cathartic release that contextualizes the entire film within cheap, over-dramatic manipulation. The film succeeds not so much because you feel sorry for poor young Ingemar (although you do), but rather because it accurately mines the depths of the human condition in a manner that radiates with universal honesty and simple emotion. My Life As A Dog is heartbreaking, yet ultimately so positively reaffirming it could be the most melancholy "feel-good" film ever made.
The fine folks at The Criterion Collection created a new high-definition digital transfer for this DVD release. If you need to see what a world of difference this made, take a look at the original Fox Lorber DVD from 1999 (or better yet, don't.) The Criterion transfer is presented in its original 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio and is anamorphically enhanced for your widescreen viewing enjoyment. The transfer is very good, marred by a general hazy softness and weak contrasts during a few scenes in the film. For the most part, colors are stable and well represented if somewhat subdued, as over-saturation and bleeding are non-existent. Flesh tones are warm and natural. Black levels and shadow delineation are lacking at times, while sharpness and image details are much better handled in brighter scenes. Grain structure is somewhat heavy, retaining the film-like appearance of the original negative. Depending upon your individual tastes, this is either beneficial or a distraction. Compression noise, edge-enhancement, and transfer artifacts are nowhere to be found. The print is refreshingly free of excessive wear and debris.
Criterion also remastered the soundtrack, cleaning up and improving the quality of the audio presentation. The Dolby Digital 1.0 presentation is presented in its original Swedish language, with removable English subtitles. The result is pleasing and serviceable, with fine dialog reproduction without any hiss, thinness, or distortion. The overall mono soundstage won't win any awards anytime soon, but it serves the movie very well.
The film's director is showcased in the eighteen-minute Interview With Lasse Hallstrom, in which he discusses his own beginnings into the world of film (including a stint as an ABBA filmmaker), his first exposure to the original novel, and his experience translating My Life As A Dog onto film and presenting it to audiences. Also included is the film's original two-and-a-half-minute theatrical trailer, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen. Finally, Hallstrom's 52-minute 1973 film Shall We Go to My or Your Place or Each Go Home Alone rounds out the package. It's a dated piece that might appeal to Hallstrom fans and completionists, although one viewing was enough for this reviewer. Hallstrom also offers up a minute-and-a-half of thoughts and feelings on his early film.
When you come right down to it, My Life As A Dog is a fine film that hits just the right notes without every slipping into any kind of maudlin territory. It's the type of movie that resonates soundly with moviegoers who eschew the ersatz sentimentality of most Hollywood "coming-of-age" productions. Criterion's release of the film on DVD may not be as feature-laden as many of their other discs, but it holds it own as a fine release of a worthy movie. Film-lovers everywhere should definitely keep My Life As A Dog in mind when they're sick of the latest studio crap-fest and in search of a film as rich and well-crafted as it is mature and entertaining.