'Dogs Don’t Wear Pants' ('Koirat eivät käytä housuja'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes
Fifty shades of grief.

A grieving widower turns to a BDSM dominatrix for consolation in this Cannes premiere from Finnish director J-P Valkeapää.

A bereaved cardiac surgeon finds an unusual way to heal his own broken heart in Finnish director J-P Valkeapää’s Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, which world-premiered in Cannes under the Directors' Fortnight banner. Set in the twilight world of BDSM sex, this darkly comic Scandi-Baltic co-production is more than just an exercise in cheap titillation, through it ultimately jumps the shark from subtle psychodrama to lurid melodrama. Headlined by two of Finland's biggest screen stars, Pekka Strang (Tom of Finland) and Krista Kosonen (Blade Runner 2049), Valkeapää’s third feature will likely make international waves based on its quality cast, high production polish and perennially buzzy subject matter.

In an elegantly composed opening sequence, surgeon Juha (Strang) is left bereft when his wife drowns while swimming in the lake that adjoins their idyllic family cabin. Left to raise their daughter, Elli (Ilona Huhta), alone, Juha sinks into despair, paralyzed by grief and confused by the sexual urges that come with it. Meanwhile, Elli is blossoming from daddy’s girl to sullen adolescent, the bond between father and daughter widening by the day.

After a clumsily contrived narrative nudge steers Juha into a BDSM sex club one afternoon, he is mistaken for a client by glamorously bewigged dominatrix Mona (Kosonen). Before he fully knows what is happening, Juha succumbs to voluntary asphyxiation, and in his semi-conscious limbo state he sees a vision of his dead wife. The intensity of this experience quickly becomes addictive, and he returns to Mona’s erotic torture chamber again and again, each time demanding more extreme punishment. “Next time would it be possible to strangle me a bit longer?,” he begs.

Initially, Mona interprets Juha’s needs as purely sexual, when in fact they run much deeper, which leaves them both confused and vulnerable. Inevitably, his pursuit of his lost love through sadomasochism becomes dangerous when he crosses the line from client to stalker. This shift in tone feels a little too engineered for maximum sensationalism, even flirting with torture porn in places. The sweet, neat resolution that follows also feels a little glib for such emotionally raw material.

As in Tom of Finland, Strang gives a beautifully measured performance, his hangdog manner tinged with great poignancy even when strapped up in a sex harness. Kosonen also finds hidden depths in Mona, even though her lightly sketched character risks succumbing to the classic male-gaze fantasy of a gorgeous sex worker with no inner life and minimal backstory. More screen time for the underused Elli, who is dealing not just with the loss of her mother but also with her father's embarrassingly weird behavior, might have added some extra psychological shading, too.

But however limited its ambitions, Dogs Don’t Wear Pants is still a witty premise clothed in an attractive technical package. Cinematographer Pietari Peltola does great work, particularly during the recurring underwater sequences, which have a dreamy slo-mo lyricism. The sex dungeon scenes, all vivid neon and lustrous latex, also have a pleasingly glossy rock-video look. Valkeapää consulted a real dominatrix to research these dramatic details, and he finds an agreeable seam of deadpan Nordic comedy in bondage, boot-licking and golden showers, presenting them as harmless hobbies as banal as any other.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight)
Production companies: Hensinki-Filmi, Tasse Film

Cast: Pekka Strang, Krista Kosonen, Ester Geislerova, Ilona Huhta, Oona Airola, Jani Volanen
Director: J-P Valkeapää
Screenwriters: J-P Valkeapää, Juhana Lumme
Cinematographer: Pietari Peltola
Editing: Mervi Junkkonen
Music: Michal Nejtek
Producers: Aleksi Bardy, Helen Vinogradov
Sales: The Yellow Affair

In Finnish
106 minutes