Despite its silly title, black comedy Dogs Don’t Wear Pants by J.-P. Valkeapää is a touching – if harrowing – study of an extreme way of overcoming corrosive grief.
Only When I (Don't) Breatheby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants is a title that grabs your attention. It’s snigger-worthy, setting the black comedy tone effectively – but it’s misleading. Really this film is a nuanced study of corrosive grief and how one man overcomes it – albeit in a startlingly non-mainstream way.
Juha (skinny, mild-mannered, bespectacled Pekka Strang, Tom of Finland) lost his wife in a freak drowning accident in an idyllic summer lake. We take up his story years later: his little daughter Elli (Ilona Huhta) is now a teenager but Juha is still frozen with grief.
When he takes her to a tattoo parlour to get a tongue stud for her birthday, he accidentally wanders into the basement dungeon of a dominatrix, who mistakes him for a client. The strangulation she gives him enables him to see sunlit visions of the wife he still misses so much. It fulfils an emotional need: he seeks to go deeper and deeper into bondage, S&M and the various means of suffocation she uses that take him back to a happier time.
Mona, the dominatrix (Krista Kosonen) humiliates him – treats him like a dog, hence the title – while taking him further into the physical pain he craves. Ironically, by day he is a heart surgeon and she is a physiotherapist – shots merge the equipment she uses to treat her patients with her bondage gear.
Juha becomes obsessed to the detriment of his job (“Are all your Moomins in the valley?”, his worried colleague enquires – it’s Finland after all), his family life and his physical wellbeing until he crosses a line and becomes emotionally involved with Mona. Some torture scenes are difficult to watch: in particular a toe-curling dental incident that expands on that notorious ‘is it safe?’ scene in Marathon Man. This is where on demand comes into its own – you can stop/start and look away if it’s too much. But basically the story is told with sensitivity and humour. Despite the extreme nature of the subject, its humanity draws you in.
Cinematography (by director of photography Pietari Peltola) is exciting – the verdant green of past memories, the blue-grey of Juha’s life now, the red glow of the BDSM scenes and the shocking-pink and cyan abstracts on black of the neon signs that break up the different locations. Michal Nejtek’s electronic score is atmospheric – even people enjoying themselves is disconcerting. Dialogue is sparse but the chemistry between Strang and Kosonen transcends the need for it. The film reaches a satisfying emotional resolution: it is truly hard to watch at times but above all well worth seeing. But maybe don’t try to emulate it at home, even if that’s where you’re watching it.
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on Curzon Home Video on 20 March 2020.