Thrilling Finnish feature Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, from director J-P Valkeapää, is a drama about trauma and recovering
from great loss, set in the world of BDSM. It also has plentiful body horror, deadpan dark humour and plotting beats reminiscent of a romantic comedy – think Sleepless in Seattle, except instead of a meet-cute atop the Empire State Building, and Tom Hanks’ widower had just wanted someone to strangle him.
The film’s visually arresting prologue establishes pain of a non-physical kind. Juha (Pekka Strang) loses his wife through horrible circumstances, as she drowns while entangled in a fishing net he’s left out in the water next to where they’re staying. Unable to save her and nearly perishing himself, he’s forced to raise their young child alone. Cut to years later and Juha’s prolonged emotional paralysis is useful for his job as a surgeon, where blood and guts – as explicitly shown – don’t bother him, but is a problem for developing meaningful new relationships.
Now 16-year-old daughter Elli (Ilona Huhta) tries to set him up with her music teacher, but the only sexual satisfaction Juha seems interested in is a masturbation ritual involving his late wife’s clothes and perfume.
He’s also numb to putting up any traditional parental resistance to Elli’s wishes for a tongue piercing. Accompanying her to the piercing parlour, he wanders off during the session to find that the building also hosts the lair of a professional dominatrix, Mona (Krista Kosonen), who assaults him upon his intrusion. With his thumbnail smashed in and mid-suffocation, Juha has an apparent out-of-
body reunion with his lost love, visualised as a naked swim in the water forever associated with her demise.
Beyond just the otherworldly emotional enlightenment of this experience, Juha develops a taste for BDSM, particularly asphyxiation. He enters into proper paid sessions with Mona: he is her ‘dog’, with the film’s title coming from her demand that he strip off. Partaking in increasingly extreme acts and ceremonies as their engagements continue, his search for pain and pleasure leads to an unexpected bond between dog and master that
confuses both parties.
Despite its aforementioned dark comedy and swerves into body horror (that thumb wound does not get prettier), Dogs Don’t Wear Pants stands out as a rare fiction film to not sensationalise, pathologise or mock kink and those who participate in such activities. It is a sex-positive narrative through and through. There is authenticity in its production and costume design’s paraphernalia, but also in what Valkeapää and cinematographer Pietari Peltola make their visual focus in the key scenes between Juha and Mona.
The striking eyes and faces of Strang and, particularly, Kosonen are what the camera hones in on, rather than their respectively nude or leather-clad bodies. It’s all about conveying the empathetic nature that’s vital to this psychological experience between the characters, whereby the elaborate costumes, settings and, well, fluids are just there to make the fantasy – which the film goes some way to normalising – more tangible. A genuinely touching final sequence only strengthens the portrait of finding hope through the hellish.