My Life as a Dog: A boy's best friend

To mark the release of Lasse Hallstrom's film on DVD, Chris Sullivan pays tribute to a life-changing film
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Written and directed by Lasse Hallstrom, the film is set in 1959 and adapted from Reidar Jonsson's autobiographical novel of the same name. It tells the story of a 12-year-old boy named Ingemar who is basically all at sea: he's unable to drink a glass of milk without throwing it in his face, yet is more than able accidentally to set alight a city rubbish dump, get his penis stuck in a bottle and drive his terminally ill mother almost to insanity. As his mother's TB worsens, Ingemar (superbly realised by Anton Glanzelius) is sent to live with his uncle in Smaland, a backwater in the south of Sweden.

Having been made to leave his trusty pet dog, Sickan, behind, Ingemar immediately empathises with Laika, the Russian dog sent to orbit the earth in Sputnik 2 in 1957, and, following his uncle's example, drops to his knees and barks like a dog whenever the mood takes him. "And what about Laika, the space dog?" he asks in one of his many soliloquies delivered to the stars."They put her in space. I don't think she felt so good about it. She went round and round until her doggy bag was empty. Then she starved to death." Laika's journey is a metaphor for young Ingemar's life: just as the dog is starved of food, so he is starved of affection. That is, until he reaches Smaland.

The community that so embraces Ingemar is peppered with wonderful eccentrics. There's his Harpo Marx look-alike Uncle Gunnar (Tomas von Bromssen), who plays a Swedish version of "I've got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" over and over again; then there's his friend with the green hair whose grandfather builds them a metal "space ship" that rides above the main street suspended from a cable, and there's the elderly and infirm Mr Arvidsson (Didrik Gustavsson), who persuades our boy to read him the descriptions from a lingerie catalogue he keeps hidden under his bed: "Like a dream," reads Ingemar while the old man writhes in ecstasy. "Cloud-like ladies' underwear with a lightweight breast section." During his stay, the boy finds the love of Saga - a young football-playing tomboy - sees his first naked lady and is spoken to as an equal by an adult. And all the while he is growing and learning.

But no coming-of-age movie should be devoid of pain, and this is no exception. Sorely tested by the deaths of both his mother and his pet, Ingemar survives by employing a logic almost too simple for mere mortals: "You have to compare things to Laika," he says, "and she starved to death. So it's not so bad."

Just as Fellini before him, Hallstrom paints his characters with a tender brush, not overdoing their unconventionality or winsomeness. Riding in perfect tandem is Ingemar who is just a boy - nothing more, nothing less - but with hopes, fears and a certain knack for getting into trouble, a composite of us all. "Why do you do this?" asks his mother after a typical Ingemar gaff. "I don't know," replies. "I guess it's menopause."

"My key interest in choosing scripts is character," said Hallstrom in an interview in 1999. "I prefer character-driven stories and not plot-driven ones. If it's behaviour I recognise then it's probably universal." Hallstrom's characters have an almost Dickensian gravitas but, unlike many film-makers who exit this genre wounded and dripping with cliché, he comes through unscathed, having made a massively important film out of a series of relatively small events and totally likeable individuals.

Since then, Hallstrom has never been able to match My Life As a Dog; it is, as he has admitted, the film by which he has judged all of his subsequent work, including What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules and Chocolat. But with its flawless acting, amazing script and gossamer-fine execution, the film is an almost impossible act to follow.

It also altered our perception of Swedish film in the Eighties: brought up on a diet of Ingmar Bergman, I had come to expect heavy-handed pictures full to bursting with multi-layered symbolism and austere rhetoric, but My Life As a Dog changed all that. When I first saw it, I looked around the auditorium 10 minutes in and everybody was smiling; they continued to do so for the entire movie.

"It is certainly one of my favourite films of all time," says the actor Rhys Ifans, who worked with Hallstrom on The Shipping News. "There is something so bittersweet, so genuine and so right about this film but I can't really put my finger on what it is. All I know is that we could do with more films like this. It is a quiet masterpiece that makes you feel good about being human."