'My Life as a Dog' tells the story of young Ingemar, a sweet yet shy boy who is forced to stay with his eccentric Uncle Gunnar (Tomas von Bromssen) and Aunt Ulla (Kicki Rudgren) during the illness and later the death of his mother.
The film is based on Reidar Jonsson's autobiographical novel, translated into film by Swedish director Lass Hallstrom in 1985. The film received two Academy Award nominations. It is interesting to note that apart from this film, Hallstrom's two major works have been the English-language films, 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape' and 'The Cider House Rules'. A major theme in most of Hallstrom's work, and certainly a theme in the novel, is that of intergenerational conflict. This is particularly evident in the relationship between Ingemar and his mother. It is clear that Ingemar's mother loves him but this love is tested by her need to rest and Ingemar's antics. We see flashbacks of her joy in playing with Ingemar at the beach at a past summer holiday, contrasted with her anger when Ingemar spills his milk all over the kitchen table. She does not want to be angry with him, indeed like the Swedish mother she is, she lets him do as he pleases, but at the same time she is ill and lacking in strength and patience. Her "lashings out" are accompanied by guilt on her part. In addition, Ingemar and Erik attempt to conceal them lest their situation catches the attention of the Children's Welfare Agency.
Ingemar is small and slight and easily picked upon by the other children. There is a strong sense in the novel of his wanting to belong. Circumstances are such that Ingemar constantly loses his grip being loved and feeling as though he belongs. His mother, sick with something like tuberculosis, is too ill to love him. His father is far away, somewhere near the Equator, hauling bananas. Instead, Ingemar pours his devotion into other people and his pets, only to feel let down.
The major theme in the book is Ingemar's self-examination through comparing himself with Laika, the dog sent up in the Sputnik. This seems to emphasise his feelings of loneliness and alienation. Whilst gazing at the stars in the clear Swedish night, Ingemar tells Laika that he understands how the dog feels. Like him, she is alone in the spacecraft, pondering what her purpose of existence. Ingemar feels this isolation strongly through the loss of all that is familiar – his mother, his father and his beloved pet dog. Ingemar's feeling seem to be typical of Swedish soul-searching, and depression. Such honest self-examination is startling for a boy so young. The ultimate tragedy is that in his grief and depression Ingemar does not arrive at the realisation that he is loved and wanted in his new home. Instead, sobbing, he buries his head into his pillow in the summerhouse.
With his sweet and gentle nature, it would be easy to exploit little Ingemar. In one sense this was achieved by the silence over the whereabouts of his beloved dog (one assumes that it was put down at the kennel). The only person who truly exploits him is old Mr. Arvidsson who has Ingemar read from lingerie catalogues for his dubious enjoyment. When Ingemar accompanies the beautiful young woman to the sculptor's house there is a sense that he is accompanying her on his own terms, as a friend, her equal. A similar relationship is slowly built up between Ingemar and his Uncle Gunnar, as they sit chatting in the summerhouse. Ingemar helps him to build and a party to the jokes at Aunt Ulla's expense, playing the old Swedish record over and over. When his aunt and uncle try to make Ingemar live with old Mrs Arvidsson, it is shy little Ingemar who stands up in his own way and ends up taking refuge in the summerhouse.
One of the most striking contrasts between the novel's portrayal of Swedish culture and our own culture is the freedom of the children. This is particularly evident through the children's and the adults' openness to sex. For example, the novel portrays the childish desire of Saga (Melinda Kinnaman), who begins the film as a tomboy, the best player on the soccer team and a keen boxer. She then becomes fascinated in the development of her breasts and develops feelings for Ingemar, which she does not attempt to hide. Unfortunately for her, Ingemar is at a stage where he feels unable to reciprocate.
Another element of Swedish childhood is the way in which the children are allowed to play at the glassworks. At no time are they stopped from splashing around in the large drum of water, running around the workshop or from conducting their boxing matches. The idea is that the children help out with a couple of hours of work and are then left to have the run of the place. This is certainly a more liberating attitude to children than the 'seen and not heard' attitude of our culture at the time.
For the student of history, this novel is a portrayal of the ordinary – typical Swedish folk in the late 1950s, going about their ordinary daily lives. It is not a tale of heroism, but all the same, it is a touching story. The characters' experiences are not too dissimilar to our own, although it could be said that elements of Sweden shine through. Through the eyes of a child, we are given a relatively honest and unbiased portrayal of Swedish culture. This film is a heart-warming, often heart-aching portrayal of childhood. It is gentle, at times slow, but thoroughly enjoyable.