Swedish director likes mixing laughter and tears
Washington — He is a film director who takes you on an emotional roller-coaster ride, so that the tears of one minute are wiped away by the laughter of the next. His name is Lasse Hallstr"om, his movie ``My Life as a Dog.'' It has come to the US after winning the Swedish equivalent of the American Oscar for best picture. Mr. Hallstr"om flew to Washington with ``My Life as a Dog,'' which was chosen for the important closing night of Filmfest DC, the first Washington international film festival. The event included 40 films from 23 countries and drew capacity crowds. The Hallstr"om film, one of the successes here, is opening this month in 12 cities around the United States. Its director explains that he wanted audiences to tangle up their tears with laughter:
``That's one of the reactions I aim for - mixing tragedy and comedy. I try to make people cry and laugh at the same time, if possible. That's really, I suppose, a final goal for a filmmaker.'' He pauses, as though looking at rushes of what he's just said. ``Yah, I think so, since films should try to work on people's emotions. It's an art for emotions, an art for your heart, and not for your brain. If you want to touch their brains, you write an article, or you talk.''
He didn't want to talk in his room, which he said was a morning mess, so we have prowled the hotel looking for a place to tape the interview. We have finally found an empty banquet room, which looks like a scene from a Bunuel movie, perhaps ``The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.'' At first there is no air conditioning, so the director lopes around the room looking for a thermostat. He presses a button; Handel's ``Water Music pours into the room. Another button; the chandelier lights go out. ``It's a Jacques Tati movie,'' he laughs, delighted at the accidental comedy of it all.
Hallstr"om's films had been mostly comedies before ``My Life as a Dog, '' which won the Swedish Film Critics' award as well as the country's Oscar, both for best picture of 1985. He notes that his comedies ``are not really highly regarded among the critics, still a bit looked down on. And I suppose it helped a bit, getting an award for being a grown-up director.''
There is a boyish quality which clings to this tall, quiet man who seems gently amused by life. His ash brown hair is still damp from a morning shower, his unshaven face expressive as an actor's, with smoke-blue eyes framed by dark brows and lashes. He is casually dressed in a horizontally striped blue and green shirt, gray flannel trousers, and new black shoes which he says slip on the rug.
Hallstr"om admits that the pull of Reidar J"onsson's novel, on which the film was based, was its mixture of tragedy and comedy: ``I've always longed to find such a story actually, such a [J.D.] Salinger story.'' But the novel also struck a chord in him: ``The attitude of the boy is very much mine, trying to keep away from disasters and tough emotions by humor and comparing with other people's disasters, all of that. So I can relate to that really. But it's not my childhood; it's the writer's entirely.''
Certainly ``My Life as a Dog'' has a serious theme despite its romp of a title. It is based on J"onsson's autobiographical novel about a crucial time in the life of a 12-year-old Swedish boy coping with the approaching loss of his mother from an illness diagnosed as fatal. Despite the tragedy, young Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius) is a resilient, spunky kid who uses laughter as a balm. He keeps reminding himself wryly that others have had it worse than he has, those who've perished in wars or accidents.
Ingemar identifies with one example, Laika, the Russian space dog who starved to death while endlessly orbiting the Earth, as he does with his pet terrier, Sickan. When things get too tough, Ingemar gets down on all fours and barks his troubles away. He can deal with his grief, behind the comic dog mask.
There is plenty of laughter, too, in this film, which takes off like a kite when Ingemar is sent to live with an uncle and aunt in a pastoral village with a small glassworks. Since this is a coming-of-age film set in the 1950s, some of the humor springs from Ingemar's naivete about the facts of life. Ingemar, who creates Chaplinesque fiascos wherever he goes, peers through a skylight for a glimpse of an artist's nude model. But he's discovered when he crashes through it.
Anton Glanzelius as Ingemar is an endearing child, with uptilted eyes and a face like a faun peering through the leaves. He won the Swedish Film Critics Award in 1985 for best actor in his moving portrayl of the boy who loses his mother, his dog, and his home - but not his sense of humor. Hallstr"om says, ``He had these eyes that you seemed to put your own emotions and feelings into. His face - it's a reflecting face.'' Anton, he says, was intuitive and ``thought it was a drag to discuss the emotions of the boy. He just did it.''
The film was shot, with a cast of actors and townspeople, in 60 days for just $1 million, mostly on location in the southern Swedish village of Aforf. Skouras Pictures spotted the film at a Toronto festival and is releasing it here.
Is Hallstr"om interested in working in Hollywood? ``Yes, please'' he grins. The director grew up going to movies screened by his his dentist father and novelist mother at weekly film parties. He made his first 8-mm film, ``The Ghost Thief,'' at age 10 and a rock movie at 18 for Swedish TV. That launched him in a television career for for the next 10 years. He began to mix TV and feature films in 1974. His films include ``ABBA - The Movie,'' about the Swedish rock group; the autobiographical ``Father to Be,'' ``The Rooster,'' and ``Happy We.'' Since ``My Life...'' he has done two films based on stories by Astrid Lingren about ``The Children of Bullerby Village.'' Among the directors Hallstr"om admires are Ingmar Bergman, Milos Forman, Ettore Scola, Charlie Chaplin, and Steven Spielberg.
Hallstr"om is already looking forward to his next film, ``the story of what happened to some Swedes during the Second World War.'' He expects to have a shooting script next summer, compiled from real stories submitted by people who answered newspaper ads about their war experiences in Sweden. He hopes that it, like ``My Life as a Dog,'' will be both tragedy and comedy. ``I like mixing the genres, if possible.'' Like his other films it will be shot in the intimate, improvised, almost family situation he prefers. With ``My Life as a Dog'' that family feeling of being on location helped the film and the children acting in it,'' he says. ``That's rare in real life - that you are on an equal basis as a child with the adults. So every child should make a feature film now and then.''