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My Life as a Dog: The Criterion Collection

The sort of film that sends reviewers scurrying to their Roget's for alternatives to the word "bittersweet," Lasse Hallström's 1985 My Life As a Dog is a nostalgic, charming, comic/tragic tale of a 12-year-old boy coming of age in 1950s Sweden. Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius) is a shy, funny boy with a slightly unhinged streak — he has a penchant for getting into trouble, which isn't exactly difficult for a kid his age. The two great loves of his life are his mother (Anki Liden) and his dog; but when his mother becomes ill with tuberculosis, Ingemar is sent to live with his uncle Gunnar (the charming Tomas von Brömssen, who looks like a Swedish Gene Wilder), leaving his dog behind and adjusting to a new village full of strange new people. Hallström has made a career of savagely wringing every drop of bittersweetness out of stories written by other people — in some cases, as with What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and Chocolat, the results have been quirky and charming; other films, like The Cider House Rules and The Shipping News, have grated with the sledgehammer insistence of their melodramas. For better or worse, My Life As a Dog — based on the autobiographical novel by Reidar Jonsson — is the film that started the director in that direction, with its funny/sad portrayal of pre-teen confusion. As Ingemar, young Glanzelius is unaffected, smart, poignant, and slightly wicked. His curiosity about sex and women is just that — curiosity, nothing more. While he burns with the desire to see Berit (Ing-Marie Carlssen), a voluptuous villager, pose naked for a sculptor, Ingemar is nonetheless oblivious when girls his own age practically throw themselves at him; he rebuffs his young friend Saga's (Melinda Kinnaman) offer to touch her small, new breasts, so she beats him up. And as a way of putting his own pain into perspective, Ingemar relates, through voice-overs, the various news stories he follows that make his own life seem not so bad — a gory javelin incident, a motorcycle stuntman who didn't quite make a jump over 31 buses, and Laika, the Russian dog sent into space to starve to death for science. And since this is a European film, after all, there's the requisite touches of weirdness in the people who Ingemar encounters, like the bedridden neighbor who has the boy read to him from underwear catalogs and the trapeze artist who recites the names of American presidents while riding a unicycle on a tightrope. Hallström presents all of this with a deft touch, keeping just enough distance to give the proceedings the feeling of genuine memories, like we're peeking in on a particularly trying year in a real person's life. It's a strange and touching story with, yes, a bittersweet tone and a sometimes-magical recreation of both the joys and sorrows of childhood. Criterion's DVD release of My Life As a Dog is presented with a new high-definition anamorphic digital transfer (1.66:1) that's very, very good — warm and clean, with virtually no noise and extremely crisp detail. The monaural audio (DD 1.0) is excellent as well; this is a very dialogue-oriented film with no need for more than a clear soundtrack. The new English subtitle translation is (at least to this writer's non-Swedish-speaking eyes and ears) good as well. Bonus features include Hallström's 1973 made-for-television movie Shall We Go to My or Your Place or Each Go Home Alone? (53 min.), a brand-new interview with the director (18 min.), the original theatrical trailer, and a booklet with essays on the film by Kurt Vonnegut and film critic Michael Atkinson. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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