Spine #178: My Life as a Dog [1985], Dir. Lasse Hallström

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Young Ingemar is obsessed with Laika, the Soviet dog sent into space. Laika was the first animal to orbit Earth, and her survival in space proved that it may be possible for humans to survive, too. But for the scientists, Laika outlived her usefulness once she entered orbit. There was no way to get her back down, and so she died up there in space, alone and unloved.

In My Life as a Dog, Ingemar is sent by his sickly mother to live with his uncle in a quaint town where the kids fight in boxing matches and the local eccentrics pound incessantly on their roofs or pose naked for artists of dubious quality. Life here is quiet but interesting, in a way reminiscent of small-town Americana.

Ingemar is at an awkward age. He understands, at an instinctual level, that his mother is ill, and that his behavior — indolent, erratic, and odd — is a burden on her. And yet, he is also young enough to not care, or to believe that even despite her sickness, he is her son, and a child, and it is not his job to worry about such weighty things. He is like Laika: a dog who can only act according to its own nature, while everything changes around it.

He feels an even greater kinship with Laika when he is sent to his uncle’s. He likes his uncle: they bond over bad music and build a playhouse in the backyard. Ingemar also develops something of a crush on the local tomboy, who beats him in boxing and soccer (the latter while dressed as a boy).

And yet, it is still something of an exile. And as we come to identify with Ingemar, we cannot help but take his side: as sick as his mother is, doesn’t it feel terribly unfair that Ingemar’s dog is taken away because his uncle’s family can’t take care of it? Do these people really want him — do they really love him?

Like Laika, he is sent far away because it is convenient for someone else. And we all know what happened to Laika.

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There is a fundamental melancholy running through My Life as a Dog, but if I had to pick a primary emotion to describe it, I would choose whimsy. Because this is also a fundamentally optimistic movie, I think — and it’s in the small moments that we see it. Yes, Ingemar is dealing with abandonment and loss. Yes, there is tragedy. But there is also a kind of lightness — like when he crashes through a window trying to spy on a woman posing naked for a sculpture, or when he and his friends get stuck in a contraption meant to zipline from the roof to the ground.

Ingemar begins to feel comfortable in his new life, in his new town. He begins to feel, in some ways, as if he has a found a place where he can belong. Perhaps Ingemar possesses a melancholy soul, but he is also a child, and capable of seeing light in the darkness.

For Ingemar, it’s a curious kind of lightness. Throughout the film, he remarks that others have it worse than he. Take this characteristic monologue, from early in the film:

In fact, I’ve been kinda lucky. I mean, compared to others. You have to compare, so you can get a little distance from things. Like Laika. She really must have seen things in perspective. It’s important to keep a certain distance. I think about that guy who tried to set a world record for jumping over buses with a motorcycle. He lined up 31 buses. If he’d left it at 30, maybe he would have survived.

Ingemar is not always capable of that kind of distance — none of us is. And as he learns by the end of the film, sometimes we must embrace sadness and darkness to come out the other side.

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Midway through the film, Ingemar is sent back to live with his mother, but the experience is short-lived. She passes away, and he is sent back to live with his uncle. But everything has changed: the old neighbor who asked Ingemar to read him descriptions from women’s clothing magazines has died; Saga, the tomboy he developed a close friendship with, grows angry when he spends time with another girl; and he finds out his beloved dog was not sent to a kennel, but actually euthanized.

Ingemar is forced to confront this darkness, and reacts by secluding himself in the summer house he and his uncle built the previous year. He spend a night here, and by the end he has reckoned with the demons knocking at his door. He has grown, in some ways. In many other respects, he is still a child.

And yet the magic of his new home shines through. Ingemar’s future is uncertain, but by the end he and Saga have reconciled, while the town eccentrics carry on about their business. Changed, perhaps, by the ravages of time, but this is nothing new to Ingemar now.

He is still a melancholy, strange boy, but unlike Laika, he makes it back to Earth.

NEXT TIME: Spine #351: The Spirit of the Beehive [1973], Dir. Victor Erice

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