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Strangulation, asphyxiation, rubber: making the BDSM romcom Dogs Don't Wear Pants | Film

BDSM is – perhaps surprisingly – big news in Palm Springs, southern California. The director Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää, showing his new, fetish-themed, third feature, Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, at a festival in the city, was confronted with a crowd of incredulous pensioners. “There was a question: is this BDSM thing real? Is it invented?” he says, chuckling. One shocked septuagenarian collared him after the screening to inquire after the mental health of the film’s hero: a widower who, after losing his wife in a drowning accident, tumbles headlong into the S&M scene. “She was saying: ‘No, he’s gone crazy. He’s totally lost it,’” says Valkeapää, hooting with laughter. He simmers down. “It’s not a very noble thing to achieve, disturbing old ladies.”

Dogs Don’t Wear Pants is indeed disconcerting, but in the best possible way. Rather than being a 50 Shades-style glossy brochure-tour of BDSM, it uses the scene to get intimate with the film’s lead couple – and explore the meaning, and the price, of true emotional honesty. The grieving Juha (Pekka Strang) is on autopilot until he takes his teenage daughter to a tattoo parlour and stumbles into the dungeon next door. There he meets Mona (Krista Kosonen), whose asphyxiation sessions give him a gateway to the final moments with his wife. Morbid on paper, Valkeapää’s kooky, tender film holds you under, then leaves you gasping with renewed lust for life.

Valkeapää had no experience of the BDSM scene, nor had the writer whose script he inherited. So he asked his script consultant, a dominatrix called Wild Ira, if he and his actors could attend her sessions. Wild Ira was more than happy to oblige. So the team found themselves opposite a shackled punter being given the works. “She made the session from our point of view,” says Valkeapää, his euphonious Finnish vowels tickling the phone line. “She brought the client closer and closer to us during the whole session. I was just trying to concentrate on keeping myself on the chair.”

Being in the room affected him deeply, he says – beyond the intellectual realisation that BDSM, with its “dramaturgy”, had strong affinities with storytelling. “These power dynamics had a very primitive quality, like those between a newborn and an adult who is the caretaker,” he says. “The newborn is the weak one, but still: the newborn is controlling the strong one. And also dependent on them. Nobody can avoid these emotions, or at least I couldn’t.”

The team participated in three sessions; in the second, the customer had some kind of a seizure that abruptly halted things. “To see the client and the dominatrix, from being into this roleplay of teasing and being teased, suddenly become normal, like everyday people in an accident … that clash was really interesting,” says Strang. “It’s a pretend world, but it’s pretended in the same way as what I do for a living.”

Strang had some fetish previous, after his lead role in 2017’s Tom of Finland biopic, but he also had doubts about the film. “There’s always a risk with these rough sexuality scenes that it might come off a bit pretended, or pretentious, like a 90s hardcore movie,” he says. Kosonen, one of Finland’s most famous female actors, needed convincing this was not just a sexy Miss Whiplash-style part; also, at that time, she was in the running for a role in Terminator: Dark Fate. But Valkeapää’s sensitivity to the emotions in the air, rather than the kinky paraphernalia, won them over.

Director JP Valkeapää

Director JP Valkeapää. Photograph: Pietari Peltola

It was in at the deep end for Strang and Kosonen’s first day at work: him stripped naked; her shrinkwrapped toe-to-neck in rubber, whipping and choking him. “I said: ‘Please be rough enough that I don’t have to act,’” says Strang; they also employed each other’s real names as makeshift safewords. As much as simulating the physical BDSM experience, Strang insists he wanted to stay mentally “undressed”, too: “In sex scenes, actors tend to laugh it off and jump around naked. But I went the other way. Used the awkwardness and the anxiety that I was feeling and made it bigger.”

Valkeapää says that thinking about the film in relation to the traditional romcom helped open it up: “This kind of obsession and attitude of: ‘You don’t love me, but you will.’ If you look at Sleepless in Seattle, Love Actually, most romcoms, they are filled with stalkers.”

Valkeapää was also inspired in his subversion tactics by Manchester By the Sea, specifically by its use of Tomaso Albinoni’s well-worn Adagio for a tragic flashback. “I couldn’t believe they used this music. It’s as if you opened the sadness folder, and that’s the first thing you found. For a film that was so skilfully made, it showed such mediocre taste.” So he used the piece to overlay a sex scene, in which Juha’s one-night stand insists on putting it on to get her in the mood, but then can’t stop laughing.

The BDSM community – used to being patronised on film – has responded with “overwhelming positivity” on forums, Valkeapää says. The Palm Springs community, at least the seniors, with bewilderment.

And what of him? Isn’t there a dom in every director? Aren’t they the kind of control freaks who mete out harsh sanction for every errant detail, such as misusing sad music in arthouse movies? Valkeapää thinks for a second. “I don’t think that analogy is the right one. When you’re making a film, it’s very hard to control everything; it’s not something I have illusions about. I think film-making is closer to being a gardener than a dominatrix. You’re subject to the forces of nature all the time, and you try to keep the flowers alive.”

Dogs Don’t Wear Pants is out on 20 March

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