Cannes Hidden Gem: 'Dogs Don't Wear Pants' Explores Grief in the Bondage World

Courtesy of Cannes
Krista Kosonen plays a dominatrix to a widower looking to reconnect with people in 'Dogs Don’t Wear Pants.'

Finnish helmer J.P. Valkeapää consulted a real dominatrix for the film, his drama about a man who turns to S&M following the death of his wife.

Before J.P. Valkeapää began work on Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, a love story set in the world of BDSM, the Finnish director knew next to nothing about flogging, doms, subs, whips and chains. "My connection to the scene was very superficial. I hadn’t even seen Fifty Shades of Grey," he jokes.

But when a producer brought him Juhana Lumme’s original script — about a man who is mourning his dead wife and, through an accidental encounter with a dominatrix, begins to reconnect with his own emotions — he was immediately hooked. "The images just jumped into my mind," Valkeapää says, "I was fascinated by the ideas in the story, by the sublimity and the perversity of it."

The filmmaker reworked Lumme’s script, initially drawing on internet research — "and lots of porn" — for the details of the BDSM scenes. For the final polish, Valkeapää consulted a famed Finnish dominatrix who lives in a mansion just outside Helsinki. "I brought the actors, and we took part in an S&M session — as observers," he recalls. "I was worried we would be intruding, but the man — the ‘slave,’ the client — was a real exhibitionist. After the session, I got a nice thank-you email."

There’s a lot of sex and a lot of bondage in Dogs Don’t Wear Pants. The main character, Juha, played by Tom of Finland actor Pekka Strang, becomes addicted to the emotional release he feels while being strangled by Mona, the dominatrix played by Krista Kosonen (Blade Runner 2049). 

But unlike Fifty Shades of Grey, the film is never exploitive. "The imagery of BDSM has entered the mainstream, and I can see the temptation of the visuals," says Valkeapää. "But what interested me was the human side of it, what’s under the wigs and the costumes, the leather and the whips."

What lies beneath, he found, was a surprising banality. "Beneath the fantasy of the master and slave in BDSM, there is a real warmth, a real caring," Valkeapää says. When, during one of the sessions he was watching, a man had a sudden cramp and broke down, the dominatrix flipped from sadist to caregiver. "She panicked and you could see how the fantasy broke," he recalls. "One moment it was sexual fantasy, the next it was the caring woman helping this vulnerable and fragile man."

In Dogs Don’t Wear Pants — the title is the first command Mona gives Juha, her "dog" in their bondage game — Valkeapää repeatedly shifts between extreme sexual fantasy and banal reality. "So often in film and TV, the most extreme sexual practices and BDSM are demonized," says Valkeapää. "But I think it can also lead to life. And it isn’t a big deal. It’s part of what we are as humans. We are all curious, strange beings. There’s nothing abnormal about it."

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's May 18 daily issue at the Cannes Film Festival.