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.