×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

Popular on Variety

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

  • Chosen Ones Artwork

    The Yellow Affair Picks Up Swedish YA Sci-Fi/Thriller ‘Chosen Ones’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    GÖTEBORG, Sweden — Scandi sales shingle The Yellow Affair has added to its Göteborg lineup the Swedish series “The Chosen Ones” (“Det Utvalda”), currently playing on Swedish pubcaster SVT’s streaming service SVT Play. The short form sci-fi thriller stars a strong Swedish female cast of model-turned actress Frida Gustavsson (“Swoon”), singer/actress Amy Deasismont (“Gösta”, “My [...]

  • A still from LANCE by Marina

    'Lance': Film Review

    Late in the film “Lance,” a documentary that depicts the ascent and the crash of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, the subject recalls the disappearance of his lucrative sponsorships. These deals — with a massive market value and a perhaps more important intangible value of keeping him in the public eye as a figure of rectitude [...]

  • Palm Springs

    'Palm Springs' Breaks Sundance Record for Biggest Sale Ever -- By 69 Cents

    Andy Samberg’s “Palm Springs” has just broken the record for the biggest sale in the history of the Sundance film festival — by $0.69. A joint announcement on Monday from Hulu and indie distributor Neon confirmed the existential comedy was purchased for $17,500,000.69, in a sale brokered by UTA Independent Film Group. That figure exceeds [...]

  • The Truffle Hunters

    Sundance: Sony Pictures Classics Buys 'The Truffle Hunters'

    Sony Pictures Classics has acquired worldwide rights to “The Truffle Hunters” out of the Sundance Film Festival. The pact is for $1.5 million, according to an insider. The documentary follows a handful of men in Piedmont, Italy as the search for rare and expensive white Alba truffles. It’s a lifestyle that is off-the-grid, one without [...]

  • Saweetie62nd Annual Grammy Awards, Arrivals, Los

    When 'Birds of Prey' Came Calling, 'I Passed Out,' Says Saweetie

    “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” the R-rated girl gang-driven comic book actioner starring Margot Robbie and directed by Cathy Yan, bows in theaters Feb. 7 — the same date its equally female-driven soundtrack drops. And the latter even has its own trailer.  The film’s playlist includes tracks by Megan [...]

  • The Evening Hour

    'The Evening Hour': Film Review

    A small town already down on its luck receives a few fresh kicks in “The Evening Hour.” Based on Carter Sickels’ 2012 novel, this second narrative feature from director Braden King is more plot-driven than his first, 2011’s “Here,” a leisurely and slight, if pleasant, road-trip romance. Indeed, there may be a little more content [...]

  • Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah,

    'Farewell Amor': Film Review

    There are small, telling differences in the way each of the three long-separated main characters in “Farewell Amor” remembers the day of their reunion. Standing at JFK, awkwardly clutching a bunch of flowers to give to the wife and child he has not seen in 17 years, Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine from “The Chi”), [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content