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Savant PAL Region 2 Guest Reviews:

My Life as a Dog
Elvira Madigan

Separate releases reviewed by Lee Broughton

This month England's Arrow Films present two well respected Swedish productions. My Life as a Dog is an extremely moving if playfully eccentric coming of age tale set in the late 1950s. There's little in the way of simple sentimentalism on display here though: our tears are generated by the tragic reality of the genuinely harsh problems faced by the film's young protagonist. Some reviewers liken this show to television's The Wonder Years but, beyond the fact that they both feature a first person narration that details the early adolescent experiences of their lead characters, the two productions have little in common. If a tenuous English language point of reference has to be found, My Life as a Dog's cast of eccentric supporting characters probably serves to allow a loose comparison to Nickelodeon's The Adventures of Pete and Pete but such a comparison is still somewhat off mark. Elvira Madigan is a moving period drama that tells the tale of a doomed love affair that flowered and died in Denmark during the year 1889. An art film shot in a recognisably European style, the film also features some subtle anti-war sentiments. Both films were produced by Waldemar Bergendahl and photographed by Jorgen Persson.

My Life as a Dog
Arrow Films
1985 / Colour / 1.85:1 anamorphic 16:9 / Mitt liv som hund/ 98 m.
Starring Anton Glanzelius, Tomas von Bromssen, Anki Liden, Melinda Kinnaman, Kicki Rundgren, Lennart Hjulstrom, Ing-Marie Carlsson, Leif Ericson, Christina Carlwind, Ralph Carlsson
Cinematography Jorgen Persson
Production Designer Lasse Westfelt
Film Editors Christer Furubrand and Susanne Linnman
Original Music Bjorn Isfalt
Written by Lasse Hallstrom, Reidar Jonsson, Brasse Brannstrom and Per Berglund, from the novel by Reidar Jonsson
Produced by Waldemar Bergendahl
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom


Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius) is a lively young boy whose behaviour inadvertently drives his seriously ill mother (Anki Liden) to distraction. In an attempt to offer her some respite, it is decided that Ingemar should go and stay at his uncle Gunnar's (Tomas von Bromssen) place in the country. Traumatized by the experience of being separated from his mother, his older brother Erik (Manfred Serner) and his beloved pet dog, Ingemar tries his best to fit into the eccentric rustic community that is set to become his new home.

Ingemar isn't a bad kid but the boisterous shenanigans that he, Erik and Sickan the dog get up to only serve to further sap his mother's already fading strength. In turn the stress of dealing with his mother's illness seems to be having a psychological effect on Ingemar. There are times when he appears to be understandably disturbed and he goes on to develop a phobia about drinking in public. But he's a sweet and likeable child who tries to put his own troubles into perspective by comparing them to tragedies that he has read about in newspapers or heard about on TV. As a dog lover his thoughts often turn to the plight of Laika, the first dog in space. As Ingemar ponders the fate of Laika and other individuals who he judges to be less fortunate than himself, director Lasse Hallstrom presents us with a representation of the boy's mind's eye: a point of view shot of an object slowly travelling through space. When he isn't comparing his sad plight to that of others, Ingemar draws comfort from two stocks of cherished memories: an idyllic day spent at the seaside with his mother while she was still well and the happy games that he once played with Sickan.

If Ingemar experiences any direct good fortune, it is perhaps the fact that the community that adopts him is full of wonderfully eccentric characters that act to take his mind off his melancholy predicament. His uncle Gunnar thinks and talks constantly about women's breasts and loves listening to a recording of the song I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts. Gunnar hits back at the forces of capitalism by secretly constructing a small private outbuilding on land that his employers own. Gunnar and his partner Ulla (Kicki Rundgren) share their company-owned lodgings with Mrs Arvidsson (Vivi Johansson) and her ill husband (Didrik Gustavsson): the bed-ridden old man is so weak that his only pleasure in life is having Ingemar innocently read him the contents of a lingerie catalogue out loud. When he dies, the company moves Mrs Arvidsson out and replaces her with a large family of silent and culturally confused Greek immigrants. Other eccentric local characters include Mr Fransson (Magnus Rask), an old man who is constantly repairing his roof, Manne (Jan-Philip Hollstrom), a boy whose natural hair colour is green, a mad artist who defiantly adds female breasts to the milk bottles produced at the local glass works and a dare-devil unicyclist.

Ingemar gets a crush on the beautiful and voluptuous Berit (Ing-Marie Carlsson) whose sexy curves result in the mad artist hiring her as a nude model. She asks Ingemar to tag along to the modelling sessions in order to ensure that things remain completely business-like: alas he's subsequently disappointed when he's not allowed to observe the sculptor and his model at work. But Ingemar is a hit with girls of his own age and three of his more sexually aware female school friends try to draw him into getting involved with them physically. He's either too immature, too embarrassed or too distracted by his woes to show any real interest in their advances and things get awkward for him when he rejects Saga (Melinda Kinnaman). A tomboy who passed as a boy and became the star player of the community's junior football team, Saga gets spiteful when Ingemar shows no interest in her and she unleashes a torrent of home truths that destroy Ingemar's delicate conception of his life and the world in general. Ingemar is still innocent and trusting enough to believe the white lies that adults sometimes tell children in order to spare them pain and Saga's harsh revelations push the boy over the edge, leading us to a truly heartbreaking denouement.

This is a really excellent film that tells a very sad tale in an impressively simple way. Lasse Hallstrom and cinematographer Jorgen Persson employ an approach that successfully fuses social realism with a mild form of magic realism and the result is a very convincing approximation of a child's eye view of the world. Ingemar's gentle first person narration successfully draws us straight into his world and allows us to share the raw emotional pain and trauma that he suffers. But it isn't all doom and gloom. Ingemar gets to laugh as well and the film does feature some extremely funny and uplifting moments too. The rural community where Ingemar settles is an idyllic place in many respects. Its inhabitants may not be rich in financial terms but they have a fantastic sense of community spirit which results in them socializing outside of working hours and producing their own folk culture-like entertainments.

The kids have plenty to do too, be it playing for or supporting the local junior football team, helping out at the glass works or hanging out in the play features-packed barn at Manne's grandfather's place. In his spare time Manne's grandfather builds the kids a space pod that moves along a transport wire and the whole community turns out to observe the pod's 'launch'. Although folk culture activities are emphasized in a positive way here, new technologies are also shown in a positive light. A new television set is used as an ice-breaker that allows bridges to be built with the Greek family while radio sets allow the country folk to become part of a national audience that enjoys an international cultural happening: Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson winning the world title from Floyd Patterson.

The acting here is uniformly excellent. There are a number of scenes that feature children only and the child actors do a great job of preserving and perpetuating the film's realist elements. And all of the adult actors manage to bring their often eccentric characters to life quite naturally: there's no resorting to silly or overplayed dramatics. All of the film's other technical elements are pretty much excellent too: Persson's superb cinematography is enhanced by a series of consistently natural and fluid edits but the show's story is so engrossing that disengaging to simply check the quality of a certain shot's framing or composition isn't easy. One section of the film that does allow a brief pause for such contemplation is Ingemar's second train journey to his uncle's house in the winter time: a perfectly framed and smooth moving aerial shot follows the train over a pure white landscape while a perfectly formed cloud of pure white smoke chugs out of the train's engine funnel. The film's art direction is impressive too: costumes, set designs, found locations, etc, all hit the mark in terms of recreating convincing period details from the late 1950s. Bjorn Isfalt's beautiful piano-led soundtrack score provides the perfect musical accompaniment.

Mastered from a 2002 Swedish restoration of the film, this disc's picture quality is excellent. The picture is consistently sharp and detailed and the film's colours are strong and vibrant. Sound quality here is excellent too: the disc features the film's original Swedish soundtrack supported by optional English subtitles.

Elvira Madigan
Arrow Films
1967 / Colour / 1.66: flat letterbox / 87 m.
Starring Pia Degermark, Thommy Berggren, Lennart Malmer, Cleo Jensen, Nina Widerberg
Cinematography Jorgen Persson
Film Editor Bo Widerberg
Original Music Ulf Bjorlin
Written by Bo Widerberg from the ballad by Johan Lindstrom Saxon
Produced by Waldemar Bergendahl
Directed by Bo Widerberg


Denmark, 1889: a Swedish army lieutenant, Count Sixten Sparre (Thommy Berggren) meets and falls in love with a beautiful Danish tightrope walker, Elvira Madigan (Pia Degermark). He becomes a deserter while she leaves her circus without its star attraction. With the military keen to track them down, the couple hope to lay low in the Danish countryside but their high-profile abscondment has made it as far as the local papers. To make matters worse, their limited finances begin to dwindle just as winter starts approaching.

Director Bo Widerberg adopts an unusual approach at the very start of this show: he uses title cards to reveal that Count Sixten Sparre and Elvira Madigan shot themselves in a forest in Denmark. What follows this stark and shocking revelation is simply the story of how they came to meet such a sad end. It's a clever device that draws the viewer straight into a macabre mystery: just what was it that drove the pair to commit such an extreme act? The nagging sense of intrigue and dread generated by Widerberg's forewarning gives the film a slightly uncomfortable and troubled atmosphere that brings to mind other offbeat, rural-based period dramas like The Inheritors and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Fortunately the bulk of the film plays like somebody neglected to tell cinematographer Jorgen Persson about the two lovers' tragic fate: he does an excellent job of capturing and communicating the sheer joy, and the real sense of optimism and freedom, experienced during the early days of the couple's relationship. Persson and Widerberg's effective use of slow motion and soft-focus photography to cover a stand-out scene where the pair gaily lollop around a field while trying to catch butterflies has been much mimicked over the years in both Popular and Art House shows.

But the film essentially plays like a blueprint for the type of period, rural-based European Art House dramas that flourished during the 1970s: extreme long shots and master shots that are beautifully framed and composed - making full use of some exquisite countryside locations - are sharply inter-cut with medium shots and close-ups that are often captured by hand-held cameras. The hand-held cameras, the presence of the odd seemingly arbitrary angle and the actors' loose and unhurried deliveries prompt a mild feeling of improvisation during some scenes. Also thrown into the mix here is another practice that several other filmmakers would go on to adopt: Widerberg opens a number of scenes in a quite static and subdued manner, employing only the countryside's natural sounds as his soundtrack. But these scenes are suddenly brought to life by the unexpected introduction of an established and well-known piece of classical music. The piece in question here is Mozart's Piano Concerto No.21 (you'll know it even if you think that you don't) and it perfectly underscores the film's early scenes of blossoming love although it does get a tad overused in spots. An interesting reversal of this technique can be found when a shock cut in the music coincides with the spilling of a bottle of red wine during an idyllic picnic: the cut on the soundtrack seems to give the accidental act a doomy and prophetic significance.

The Count and Elvira get to play the silly games that lovers play to amuse and impress each other (deciding that they can't sleep in a particular hotel room unless they place a potted plant and its stand under the bed, using an ornamental candelabra as a hat stand, etc) and they can't keep their hands off each other initially. Things aren't quite as rosy when a military friend of the Count's tracks them down and explains how badly the Count's wife and children have been affected by him abandoning them. When their money starts to run out the pair are reduced to selling off personal possessions (Elvira unwittingly sells a sketch of herself done by none other than Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to a dealer for next to nothing), selling personal services (Elvira's dancing skills) and gambling (the Count getting involved in tavern-based arm wrestling competitions). When the pair hit really lean patches, they're reduced to eating woodland berries and leaves and their relationship threatens to hit shaky ground. In one excellent sequence set at a riverside, the Count floats a letter of apology downstream towards Elvira who reads it and responds by immediately snapping out of her temporarily melancholic state. Other sequences detail more mundane 'slice of life'-like activities, such as Elvira learning to knit or food being prepared in a hotel kitchen.

This is essentially a two man show but our lovers do have some significant interactions with third parties (the Count's friend, a sympathetic hotel owner, et al) and there are also a number of short 'crowd' scenes present that Widerberg handles well. The film's art direction is impressive: the sets and costumes here are excellent for the most part and there is plenty of good period detail in evidence. The film's gentle sense of pace is generally very good though the choppy editing and jump cuts employed in some sections do disrupt its rhythm just a little. The acting here is largely delivered in quite naturalistic ways which are ideally suited to this type of show. Pia Degermark and Thommy Berggren both do a good job of making us want to know just why Elvira and the Count ended up taking such drastic action. The film's finale is as sad as it is inevitable and a poignant freeze-frame is employed here to good effect.

Nearly forty years on, Elvira Madigan still has the power to impress both as an Art House film and a keenly observed love story. But it seems that the film made a special connection with hippies the world over during its initial release in 1967 and it's not too hard to understand why. Some of the military outfits and other fashions, haircuts, moustaches, etc, seen here certainly reflect the UK psychedelic scene's liking for Victorian stylings and graphics. And the Count's conscious determination to go absent without leave for the sake of love and his dismissal of military pageantry appears to have generated a special resonance for those US hippies opposed to the war in Vietnam. There is indeed some interesting anti-war symbolism (the Count cutting the ceremonial buttons off his military tunic and replacing them with the old buttons found on a scarecrow's jacket, etc) and anti-war sentiments (the Count disclosing how reading a medical book revealed to him the true horror of armed aggression, etc) present here. And Elvira's appeal for a world without borders where concern can be shown for every citizen regardless of their nationality is also of interest. Of course in 1967, the only people who were truly at liberty to turn on, tune in and drop out were those members of the privileged classes who possessed enough private wealth to support such a precarious lifestyle option. As such Widerberg's representation of the wealthy Count and his famous and successful young lover as proto-hippies from the year 1889 isn't too hard to swallow and it's interesting to note that the pair basically came unstuck when their fugitive status prevented them from accessing the private cash reserves ultimately needed to finance their extended rural love-in.

For a flat presentation this disc boasts a remarkably sharp and detailed picture quality and the colours are excellent too. There's a little bit of print damage present in the form of odd speckles and a couple of outbreaks of very faint 'tramline' scratches but these don't pose a problem. The disc's sound quality is also near enough excellent, featuring the film's original Swedish soundtrack supported by optional English subtitles.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
My Life as a Dog rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: None

Elvira Madigan rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Excellent -
Sound: Excellent -
Supplements: None

Packaging: Separate releases in Keep case
Reviewed: June 16, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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