Cannes 2019 review: Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (J-P Valkeapää)

Heart surgeon Juha (Pekka Strang) has lost his wife in a tragic drowning accident near their summer house. A few years later he still has not processed this tragic event. When he by chance wanders into the den of dominatrix Mona (Krista Kosonen), it is the start of a relationship based on ‘asphyxiation sessions’, during which Juha, through visions that he gets while unable to breathe, finds his wife again. With each session he lengthens these moments because he cannot let her go, to the point where it almost goes horribly wrong. Mona tries to push him away, but Juha has become enslaved by his longing to be close to his wife again, which turns into a dark but also tender cat-and-mouse game between them. In the meantime, his relationship with his daughter Elli (Ilona Huhta) deteriorates and his work suffers under his need for connection, to his dead wife and to Mona.

The premise of the film could lead to a level of sensationalism, but Dogs Don’t Wear Pants manages to steer clear of that. The relationship between Juha and Mona is intimate and fragile, but not overtly sexual. BDSM roleplay can be focused on sexual satisfaction, but here the release comes from Juha reliving moments with his wife, without any carnal pleasure. These scenes are not exploitative in any way, and Valkeapää created with Mona a layered character with an agency and soul of her own. The beauty of the film lies in her pushing back, not wanting to give in to Juha’s desires. Theirs is a relationship in which she dominates, but while with other clients there is no spiritual connection, with Juha she feels something, and she tries to fight that for the longest time. Kosonen, one of Finland’s best actresses, manages to portray this conflict in Mona with small gestures and looks in a performance that embodies at once Mona’s strength and fragility.

Strang in the meantime has to transform his Juha from a man who is slightly weirded out by their BDSM play at first, to someone who by the end of the film can finally come to peace with the fact that he is different and into it. Juha is an enigmatic character, because he is a person of few words (so is Mona, for that matter), so Strang has to sell this transformation mostly with facial expressions and body language. This works particularly well in the film’s euphoric closing scene, but elsewhere at times it is a struggle to fully comprehend what makes him tick. The problem is that there aren’t many other characters around to talk about his issues (even if they’d want to), and the only one who could truly understand him (Mona) is pushing him away and doesn’t let him in emotionally.

Valkeapää treats his subject matter with respect, which makes Dogs Don’t Wear Pants one of the few films about BDSM (and there are few to begin with) that has enough honesty to explore the dynamics between two characters, not just focus on one. Even though the film uses a wide-screen format, Valkeapää focuses on the intimacy in the bondage and suffocation scenes by smart usage of darkness and blocking, and by saturating what is left of the image in deep reds (mostly) and greens. In the scenes outside Mona’s playroom, particularly those at Juha’s work, color is mostly drained out, emphasizing that Juha comes alive when he is with Mona. It is this kind of formalism, combined with the focus on the minds of the characters instead of their bodies, that lifts Dogs Don’t Wear Pants above other films with similar subject matter, in that it understands that most of the experience and fantasy of its characters is in the mind.