Depiction of extreme pain is not the most distressing thing about Finnish BDSM comedy Dogs Don’t Wear Pants. Frequent scenes of a dominatrix strangling a bereaved man until he’s near death don’t even register as outré after the first time. No, what’s hardest to swallow about Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää’s third feature is just how straight it is. With his wife dead, and his teenage daughter more distant every day, cardiac surgeon Juha (Pekka Strang) begins seeing a dominatrix, Mona (Krista Kosonen), after an accidental encounter during which he’s mistaken for a client in Mona’s sublime red lair, and strangled with a riding crop. Unable to breathe, Juha finds himself in a hallucinatory intimacy with his drowned wife, the only gratification, sexual or otherwise, he’s likely felt in years. So obviously, over the course of a few sessions, Juha falls for Mona.
Less obvious is why Mona seems to reciprocate — even as she tries to keep him at a distance. What she finds so powerful in her sessions with Juha — to the extent that she’s no longer able to perform adequately with her other clients — is conveyed only by Kosonen’s performance: the actress is quieter and more nuanced than the neurotic Strang, and thus destined for lesser acclaim. Kosonen does a lot with a little, but it’s always hard not to think: ‘Him?!’ The film’s second half becomes heavy on incident and light on psychology, as Juha’s newfound addiction further pushes his daughter away and leads him to dangerous new extremes, which read, in the moment, like worrisome moral indictments of the very thing the film previously characterized as cathartic. That the ending flips back to a non-puritanical, less after-school-special view of BDSM would come as a relief if that same ending weren’t borrowed from the ‘go and get her’ moment at the end of countless romantic comedies. The contrast between what Dogs Don’t Wear Pants seemingly ought to be — what it, in its best moments, is — and the direction in which Valkeapää takes it is as striking as the difference between Mona’s evocative subterranean lair and the drab Helsinki above it.
Published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 3.