×

Film Review: ‘Dogs Don’t Wear Pants’

An introverted widower finds emotional rescue in the BDSM scene in Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää's striking but unsensationalized black comedy.

Director:
Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää
With:
Pekka Strang, Krista Kosonen, Ilona Huhta

1 hour 45 minutes

For those who found too much fantasy in “Fifty Shades of Grey’s” depiction of S&M and its painful, cathartic pleasures, “Dogs Don’t Wear Pants” arrives as a welcome corrective. Though it doesn’t go in for explicit shock therapy, this inky comedy about a straitlaced widower who finds an alternative way to harness his grief — so to speak — is bracing for the empathetic psychological complexity it brings to oft-mistreated subject matter. Gradually carving out a tender, conflicted misfit romance from lurid beginnings, and eventually finding joy in some very dark corners, Finnish writer-director Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää maintains a peculiar tonal balance to the end of his irresistibly titled third feature. The result is audacious enough to whip up interest on the festival circuit following its Cannes premiere, but not so extreme as to discourage distributors with singular tastes of their own.

It’s hard to imagine “Dogs Don’t Wear Pants” working as well as it does without the hangdog gravitas of leading man Pekka Strang: The actor, who also recently got his kink on in the title role of “Tom of Finland,” lends credible emotional ballast to a story that, given less careful handling, could easily twist itself into absurdity. He plays Juha, an accomplished cardiac surgeon and doting family man, introduced on an idyllic lakeside getaway with his wife and young daughter Elli. The film will never feel so sun-dappled again; in a scene of strangely impressionistic terror, Juha fails to rescue his wife from drowning in the lake, and is plunged into severe long-term mourning.

Fast-forward a decade or so, and Juha hasn’t climbed out of the abyss, while Elli has matured into an independent-minded teen, growing increasingly distant from her emotionally petrified dad. While accompanying her to a piercing parlor for a sweet-16 act of mild rebellion, Juha wanders idly downstairs, stumbling into the workplace of professional BDSM dominatrix Mona (Krista Kosonen, following her brief turn in “Blade Runner 2049”). Assuming he’s a client, Mona has him under her spiked heel before he can so much as protest — yet when she subjects him to autoerotic asphyxiation, he’s stunned to encounter a vision of his wife in the hazy dream-space between life and death.

Obsessed with returning to that limbo, he becomes a regular visitor to Mona’s neon-red dungeon, requesting ever more intense strangulation until even she is unnerved by his apparent death wish. Cue a very unusual sort of fatal-attraction pursuit, in which Juha’s desire to feel anything at all leads him into ever more outlandishly masochistic activity: one memorable scene, in particular, will enthral anyone who thought “Marathon Man” lacked only an erotic charge. Yet Valkeapää isn’t simply out to gawp: There’s both compassion and interior logic to its study of a man who seemingly needs to break down his defenses entirely before he can function again, as either a father or a lover. “What you want will cost you so much in pain you won’t be able to stand,” Mona warns him; to Juha, if the pain exceeds that of his grief, it can only be a welcome distraction.

Strang plays this odd awakening with delicacy and wit, his lanky body language gradually loosening and quickening as Mona’s influence takes effect, contorted with a mixture of anguished desire and ecstatic relief. He has a cool, formidable scene partner, too, in Kosonen, who’s given less to work with by the script — in maintaining Mona’s disinterested mystique, Valkeapää and co-writer Juhana Lumme risk rendering her something of a sadomasochistic pixie dream girl — but does a fine job of suggesting unhealed wounds of her own beneath a slick leather carapace.

The catchy title may derive from the puppy-mistress roleplay through which its characters initially connect, but “Dogs Don’t Wear Pants” keeps their power dynamic intriguingly fluid and reversible as the relationship unfolds. Moreover, its perspective remains calmly sex-positive, even normalizing, in its portrayal of alternative turn-ons: Pietari Peltola’s sleek cinematography can’t resist wallowing a little in the liquid vinyl blacks and fluorescent highlights of the underground BDSM scene, but when the lights go up, what’s most striking is how agreeably everyday these people and their outwardly unremarkable lives are. Not every shade of gray is sexy, after all.

Film Review: 'Dogs Don't Wear Pants'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight), May 21, 2019. Running time: 105 MIN.

Production: (Finland-Latvia) A Helsinki-Filmi presentation in co-production with Tasse Film. (International sales: The Yellow Affair, Helsinki.) Producers: Aleksi Bardy, Helen Vinogradov. Co-producers: Alise Ģelze, Aija Berzina.

Crew: Director: Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää. Screenplay: Valkeapää, Juhana Lumme, from a story by Lumme. Camera (color, widescreen): Pietari Peltola. Editor: Mervi Junkkonen. Music: Michal Nejtek.

With: Pekka Strang, Krista Kosonen, Ilona Huhta, Jani Volanen, Oona Airola, Iiris Anttila, Ester Geislerovà. (Finnish dialogue)

More Film

  • US actor Kevin Spacey (C) is

    Kevin Spacey Shouldn't Be Exonerated in Hollywood Even as Criminal Case Ends (Column)

    The news that criminal charges against Kevin Spacey in the Nantucket groping case have been dropped raises an inevitable question: does this mean he can claw his way back into Hollywood’s good graces? Or maybe more importantly: should it?  More Reviews Film Review: Trey Anastasio in 'Between Me and My Mind' Karlovy Vary Film Review: [...]

  • Movie Ticket Subscriptions

    As MoviePass Fades, Theaters Fall In Love With Subscription Services

    MoviePass may be cratering, but movie theater subscriptions are here to stay. More Reviews Film Review: Trey Anastasio in 'Between Me and My Mind' Karlovy Vary Film Review: 'The True Adventures of Wolfboy' AMC and Cinemark already operate their own online ticketing services. And by the end of July, Regal Entertainment is expected to unveil [...]

  • This photo shows composer Hans Zimmer

    Hans Zimmer on Recreating Iconic Score: 'The Lion King' 'Brought People Together'

    Composer Hans Zimmer is seated at the mixing board at the Sony scoring stage, head bobbing to the music being performed by 107 musicians just a few yards away. He’s wearing a vintage “Lion King World Tour” T-shirt, frayed at the collar. More Reviews Film Review: Trey Anastasio in 'Between Me and My Mind' Karlovy [...]

  • Lion King merchandise

    'The Lion King': Disney Targets Nostalgic Adults With High-End Merchandise

    Does Nala wear lipstick? Probably not, but “Lion King” fans can celebrate the release of the live-action remake with a new line of makeup that’s part of a whole pride of other items themed to Disney’s live action redo. For about $40, the Can’t Wait to Be Queen eyeshadow palette by Luminess Cosmetics includes shades [...]

  • 'Cats' Movie Trailer: Watch Taylor Swift,

    'Cats' Trailer Drops: Watch Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson in Movie Musical

    Universal has released the first trailer for its film adaptation of the Broadway play, “Cats,” starring Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson and James Corden. More Reviews Film Review: Trey Anastasio in 'Between Me and My Mind' Karlovy Vary Film Review: 'The True Adventures of Wolfboy' Based on the book “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by [...]

  • Yvonne StrahovskiCritics' Choice Awards, Arrivals, Los

    'Handmaid's Tale's' Yvonne Strahovski Joins Chris Pratt in 'Ghost Draft' (EXCLUSIVE)

    “The Handmaid’s Tale” star Yvonne Strahovski is in negotiations to join Chris Pratt in Skydance’s sci-fi pic “Ghost Draft,” sources tell Variety. More Reviews Film Review: Trey Anastasio in 'Between Me and My Mind' Karlovy Vary Film Review: 'The True Adventures of Wolfboy' “Lego Batman’s” Chris McKay is attached to direct. “Ghost Draft,” written by [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content