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Dogs Don’t Wear Pants review – darkly humorous BDSM tale | Film

“I know how the heart works.” So says Juha, a middle-aged heart surgeon whose life falls apart in the wake of tragedy, but who finds unexpected escape from pain in the rituals of bondage. Maintaining a remarkable balance between deadpan humour and deadening grief, J-P Valkeapää (the Finnish director of The Visitor and They Have Escaped) takes us tumbling down a BDSM rabbit hole into a Wonderland-like world of asphyxiated wish-fulfilment. Despite the title (which, in English at least, has unintended overtones of naff Carry On-style buffoonery) the result is sometimes shocking, often funny, but ultimately redemptive and uplifting.

We open with the sound of breathing, foreshadowing a haunting sequence that recalls the devastating prologue from Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. As Juha (Tom of Finland’s Pekka Strang) drifts in and out of a wakeful reverie, his wife and daughter swim in a lake, from which only one returns. Plunging beneath the water, Juha finds his wife caught like a mermaid in a fishing net, almost drowning himself as he struggles to free her. In a state of delirious semi-consciousness, Juha sees the two of them together – safe beneath the waves, like Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah in Splash. It’s a blissful moment of peace from which he is promptly pulled, leaving him flapping like a skewered fish, writhing and gasping in pain.

Fast-forward several years, and Juha is still living within his grief, smothering himself with his wife’s dresses while masturbating to her perfume, desperate for the annihilation of la petite mort. When his now-teenage daughter Elli (Ilona Huhta) wants a tongue piercing for her birthday, Juha agrees to take her, only to stumble into a subterranean S&M lair. It’s a twilight world of black rubber and pink neon which knocks the wind out of Juha, literally taking his breath away and transporting him back to that visionary blue undersea world of lost love – an unexpectedly ecstatic experience.

Dogs Don’t Wear Pants.

‘A blissful moment’: Dogs Don’t Wear Pants. Photograph: Publicity Image

This transportation is facilitated by Mona (Krista Kosonen), the dominatrix whose wigs evoke the iconography of Louise Brooks, or (more pointedly) Bulle Ogier in Barbet Schroeder’s Maîtresse. Mona is well-versed in the rituals of asphyxiation, getting her client to hold a shiny globe, the dropping of which (a satirical nod to Citizen Kane?) indicates the exact moment of unconsciousness. It is a moment to which Juha is soon addicted, returning obsessively to Mona’s domain, begging her to strangle him for longer, to go further. Soon, his life is consumed by the need to recapture that elusive, fleeting escape, overwhelming his work (he sees the neon of Mona’s dungeon in the operating lights of surgery), causing him to neglect his health, his home life, and his daughter.

This may sound heavy going, and Valkeapää (whom I interviewed on stage at the BFI) confirmed that early drafts of the script, which he inherited from co-writer Juhana Lumme, were simply too dark to work. But by introducing a leavening thread of black humour, the film was gradually transformed into what Valkeapää now cheekily calls “a romantic comedy”, a description that seems all the more apt on second viewing. Yes, there are moments of squirm-inducing extreme cinema, including a fingernail scene that recalls Jeff Goldblum’s squishy demise in The Fly, and a home dentistry sequence that makes Marathon Man seem very safe indeed. But the latter of these is punctuated with perfectly timed moments of laughter – an interpersonal intimacy that is the film’s true key register.

Watch a trailer for Dogs Don’t Wear Pants.

Cinematographer Pietari Peltola captures the shifting surfaces of the drama, aided by a sound-design that recalls the tactility of William Friedkin’s Cruising. Musically, Michal Nejtek’s score counterpoints the pounding throb of obsession with interludes of transcendent elation, while Albinoni’s Adagio is deployed to toe-curlingly toxic effect in one of the film’s most elegantly tragicomic sequences.

Crucially, Valkeapää understands the nurturing, consensual dynamic of BDSM, displaying a nuanced, sex-positive sensitivity that put me in mind of Kirby Dick’s wonderful documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. There are echoes, too, of a range of boundary-pushing movies, from Frank Ripploh’s exuberant Taxi zum Klo (Mona’s other life as a physical therapist is depicted with sincerity and grace) to Lynne Stopkewich’s austere Kissed (an oddly touching adaptation of Barbara Gowdy’s story We So Seldom Look On Love). Yet beneath it all is the dippy grief-stricken sweetness of Truly, Madly, Deeply or Sleepless in Seattle – albeit with added whips.

Available to watch on curzonhomecinema.com

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