Recently in this best director log we’ve looked at offerings from the likes of Spielberg and Scorsese who are both directors that have produced multiple Best Picture nominees. Another director we have met before on our travels is Lasse Hallström who helmed the Oscar-winning The Cider House Rules and followed it up with another Best Picture nominee Chocolat. But we have to go back to 1987 when Hallström was still primarily producing films in his native Sweden in order to look at the first film that saw him garner academy recognition; My Life as a Dog.
Whilst Hallström had been directing films for over a decade I think that My Life as a Dog really put him on the map which is odd when you look at the structure of it. In fact My Life as a Dog is almost the anti-Oscar film as it features no big stars, no big weepy moments and has a 12-year-old boy as its lead protagonist. The 12-year-old in question is Ingemar whose life is in freefall with a mother who can’t look after he and his brother properly which leads him to act quite absurdly. Ingemar finally finds somewhere to fit in when he goes to live with his uncle Gunnar whom he bonds with as he does plenty of the residents of Småland. One relationship that is particularly crucial to the film is that between Ingemar and the town’s tomboy Saga who share the same loves of football and boxing. From there the film follows quite a linear structure as Ingemar experiences feelings towards Saga whilst also dealing with both the death of his mother and later his beloved dog who had been euthanised without his knowledge. The title itself refers to the bizarre period near the end of the film when Ingemar starts barking like a dog presumably after suffering a large amount of emotional pressure. However throughout the film he compares his struggles to those of Laika the dog who was sent into space and this comparison was wrapped up neatly by the end of the movie.
I think I had high expectations going into My Life as a Dog as I had read quite a few people praising it as one of their favourite films of all time. Although I enjoyed some elements of it I did think it was nothing more than an above-average coming of age story albeit one with a superb central performance from Anton Glanzelius who made Ingemar totally sympathetic from the word go. I also felt the film was superbly shot throughout and Hallström deserves credit for making us see the world through his protagonist’s eyes. I did feel that the director and lead actor contributed to make this a great film about growing up especially when documenting the relationship between Ingemar and Saga. A parallel between My Life as a Dog and the director’s later English language movies can be made via the colourful characters who make up the supporting cast. Uncle Gunnar is a particularly eccentric character whose love of the song ‘I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts’ is the first thing that he is able to bond over with his nephew. Talking of the film’s music I also enjoyed Björn Isfält’s central score which really elevated the action and almost a magical quality about it. Where the film falls down for me is the rather episodic nature of the plot and the way in which Ingemar never settles in one location for very long. This is partly due to the fact that Hallström was trying to be faithful to the film’s source text but I found at times that the story dragged which took away from my enjoyment of the film.
That being said I still believe that Hallström deserved his Best Director nod for creating a film that had a unique style and a likeable lead character. Interestingly I do think My Life as a Dog had a lot in common with one of that year’s Best Picture nominees, John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, as they both saw traumatic events depicted through the eyes of a child. That may be one of the reasons that My Life as a Dog wasn’t included amongst the respectable list of Best Picture nominees in 1987 but my feeling is that it has more to do with the fact that the film is in a foreign language. That being said I think the film did put Hallström firmly on the map and made him more than just the man that was behind the scenes of the majority of your favourite ABBA videos.
Next up we continue our look back at foreign cinema Best Director nominees with a Japanese Shakespearean adaptation that oddly enough won that year’s Oscar for Best Costume Design.