Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (2019)

Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Koirat eivät käytä housuja) first published (in a shorter version) by Sight & Sound, April 2020

Review: In the grand tradition of psychological dramas, Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Koirat eivät käytä housuja) opens with a primal scene: in trying to rescue his already dead wife (Ester Gieslerová) who, while out swimming, had become trapped in an underwater net, Juha (Pekka Strang) too almost drowns, pulled out semiconscious by a passing fisherman – all before the eyes of their four-year-old daughter Elli (Ellen Karppo). In his latest film, Finnish director J.-P. Valkeapää (The Visitor, 2008; They Have Escaped, 2014), co-writing with Juhana Lumme, restages and renegotiates this family tragedy through the unexpected language of BDSM.

Now, over a decade latter, while the teenaged Elli (Ilona Huhta) is getting her tongue pierced as a tentative birthday rite of passage, Juha wanders downstairs into a dungeon where his transgressive intrusion sees him knocked over and held in a stranglehold by the dominatrix Mona (Krista Kosonen). That sense of suffocation reawakens in Juha a perverse longing for his wife’s watery embrace, and so he starts regularly visiting Mona for sessions of dog-like subjugation that always climax with his being choked to – and beyond – the point of unconsciousness, so that he can drown once again in grief, guilt and desire. 

The bondage setting might suggest pure kink, but Juha is figured as a deeply damaged, despairing man who is exploring, within a relatively safe space, his own unresolved feelings and dangerous death wish. Mona, who works by day as a physiotherapist, offers Juha a different kind of therapeutic programme which quickly becomes for him an addiction that upends both his relationship with adolescent Elli and his professional life as – ironically for this most heartbroken of characters – a cardiothoracic surgeon (“I know how the heart works,” he assures Mona).

Juha’s monomaniacally obsessive pursuit of Mona – or at least of the smothering service that she provides – soon leaves him bruised, hospitalised and clearly not in his right mind, even as Mona finds her client’s needy submission chiming with her own impulses both to harm and heal. Although their relationship is almost definitionally transactional, something of a romance also develops between Juha and Mona, who alone understand each other’s wants – and the film’s great paradox is that the more Juha is able to translate his suicidal Liebestod into ‘conventional’ kink, the healthier and better-adjusted he becomes.

DP Pietrai Pelotola favours close-ups to establish an intimacy with the film’s subjects, while often fetishising its objects (especially Juha’s glasses, or the perfume bottle with its olfactory evocation of his wife) by placing them in the focal foreground of a shot. At times Juha conducts conversations – with both Elli and Mona – through a door or over a telephone, accentuating all these characters’ isolation. Though the themes in this adult coming-of-age film are serious, and Juha’s pain, both psychological and physical, hits hard, there is much deadpan humour, with this lightness of touch typified by a sequence in which Juha’s date Satu (Ooma Airola) laughs her way through an awkward sexual encounter. This sex-positive story of a drowning man’s reemergence into life is miraculously both bleak and funny – but the viewer might feel less passive if there were as much focus on what drives Mona’s S as Juha’s M.. 

Synopsis: Finland. While swimming in a lake on vacation, Juha’s wife accidentally drowns, and Juha himself almost drowns trying to rescue her. Over a decade later, heart surgeon Juha, still himself heartbroken, takes his teenaged daughter to get her tongue pierced. Wandering uninvited into the BDSM dungeon downstairs, Juha is attacked by dominatrix Mona, and while being choked, has a vision of being underwater. Juha hires Mona’s services: she insists on treating him like a dog, but the sessions always end, at Juha’s request, with suffocation, leading him closer and closer, in his barely conscious mind, to reuniting with his wife. Now addicted to the sessions, and neglecting his domestic and professional life, Juha ends up hospitalised after concealing from Mona his loss of consciousness. Banned from sessions, and with his sanity being questioned at work, Juha goes on a date with Elli’s music teacher Satu; after asking her to wear his wife’s perfume and strangle him, an amused Satu kicks him out. Juha stalks Mona to Club Caviar, but cannot get in. He later follows her home, where she insists he agree to let her remove one of his teeth, but then refuses to help him die. Juha is reinstated at work. He dresses in bondage gear and goes to Club Caviar, where, dancing alone, he encounters Mona.

Anton Bitel