“A deeply unsettling depiction of trauma.”
From Buñel’s Belle de Jour to the more recent Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, films centered around the practice of BDSM have been heavily criticized and censored, in view of both explicit scenes and graphic depictions of violence. Finnish director J.-P. Valkeapää’s deadly fairytale offers a gripping take on the subject by weaving pain and desire together in a neon-lit time capsule.
Adapted from Juhana Lumme’s art school graduation script, Dogs Don’t Wear Pants follows the emotional journey of Jeha (Pekka Strang) as he walks the fine line between the worlds of the living and the dead. The film opens with the portrait of a seemingly happy family – a bed shared by a couple, a child running around a house overlooking a river. However, this dream-like sequence turns out to be a memory from the past, and the dream quickly becomes more of a nightmare as the child’s screams flood the room and echo through the house.
Cut to present day, Juha has been raising his daughter on his own in the aftermath of the passing of his wife, an event which caused his own symbolic death. Juha, who works as a heart surgeon at a Helsinki hospital, buries himself in his work and puts on a facade as an attempt to hide how much the sudden loss—an alluded suicide—has affected him. That is, until his daughter Elli (Ilona Huhta) decides she wants a piercing, a wish that will bring them both to a place which becomes the stage of a new adventure for Juha. The father is forced to stay outside the parlour as Elli gets her tongue pierced, and starts to wander around, ending up in a dark neon-red basement, where he encounters the enigmatic and enticing dominatrix Mona (Krista Kosonen). From that moment, Juha falls into the world of BDSM, not as a result of trauma nor to try and escape it, but rather as an exploration of desires he had repressed for too long, maybe even finding love along the way.
He leaves his first encounter with Mona with a crushed nail, and begins to accumulate bruises and broken bones, as he frequently returns to the neon dungeon. Juha increasingly devotes himself to his new addiction, and as a result, spends less time with his daughter and starts neglecting his work. In his eyes, Mona is the symbol of a revolution that will allow him to unlock a torrent of desires. Harnessed to a throne as he roleplays as a dog, he toys with his life throughout the film. Juha initiates a game of cat and mouse—or rather cat and dog—with the mysterious woman, giving into his addiction to pain and bringing him to his most ecstatic state. Whenever they meet, he implores Mona to take his life in her hands until his pain reaches its climax—the skillfully shot moments of suffocation will have viewers gasping for air.
The film offers an interesting perspective on the love of pain, depicting the escalation of suffering of a man desperate for revelation. The addiction itself lies in the small details—a bottle of perfume, a glass globe— and in Juha’s moment of glory; that one second separating him from death, suspended in time, that allows him to be reunited with his late wife. A moment so precious that he is willing to risk everything for it.
However, the story remains male-centered, following Juha’s destructive journey, with the dimension of him using Mona and Satu (Oona Airola), Elli’s music teacher, as a “drug” and thus reducing them to objects. The female roles are rather two-dimensional and lack characterisation. Male desire is a narrative widely explored in film, particularly by a portrayal of women through the male gaze—Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, does not offer any novelty in that sense. Nevertheless, the film depicts the wrongs of the male character without making excuses for him, a perspective on trauma which isn’t usually granted to men in film.
“Darling, I don’t like ordinary stuff.” The vibrant colour tones contrast with the bleak streets of Helsinki, making up for a dark yet arty storytelling. Although only scratching the surface of BDSM, J.-P. Valkeapää’s feature-length film achieves a good balance between tense sequences and deadpan humour; a fairytale made all the more compelling as Pekka Strang delivers his gripping central performance which uncovers an unsettling depiction of trauma. If there were only one reason to watch this film, it would be the following: Dogs Don’t Wear Pants is nothing like the ordinary.
Dir: J.-P. Valkeapää
Prod: Helsinki-Filmi, Tasse Film
Cast: Pekka Strang, Krista Kosonen, Ilona Huhta
Release Date: March 2020 (available to stream online)
Available on: Curzon Home Cinema, MUBI (in selected countries)
Header image courtesy of Anti-Worlds