Everyone grieves loss in their own way, and sometimes finding the way that works for you can be a journey of self-discovery. Sometimes we discover things about ourselves that we never even knew, often these realizations can be terrifying and liberating in equal measure. Such is the case in Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää's Cannes Directors' Fortnight selection, Dogs Don't Wear Pants.
The film opens on an idyllic lakeside scene. Juha (Pekka Strang) and his wife and daughter prepare to go for an afternoon swim, with his wife taking the first dip. Juha heads back into the house to nap and is suddenly awakened by the cries of his toddler daughter. Terrified and confused, he heads down to the lake to find that his wife has become tangled in discarded fishing nets and drowned.
When we rejoin Juha and his daughter, several years have passed and that toddler is now in high school, but in Juha's mind, the wound is still fresh. He's given up on life, passing from one day to the next in a stupor, hopeless and emotionally bereft. One day, as accompanies his daughter to a local head shop to get her tongue pierced, he inadvenrtantly stumbles into a back room occupied by a dominatrix in the middle of a session.
At that moment, something awakens in Juha. While not quite an epiphany, the stirring he feels at the sight of this woman in complete control is enough to encourage him to make an appointment for himself. The dominatrix, Mona (Krista Kosonen), forces him to strip and get on his knees, the acts of submission she extracts for him are not quite extreme, but rather a way for him to let go of the pain he carries around, but he doesn’t understand this, not yet.
During that first session, one act of domination in particular takes Juha to a place of peace, a place where he can briefly regain the sense of belonging he had when his wife was by his side. Juha becomes immediately addicted to this transient bliss, and like any addict, he begins to schedule his life around his appointments with Mona. She, on the other hand, begins to feel as though the master/slave dynamic is getting a bit too intense for her, as Juha’s sense boundaries are not the same as hers, and before too long, things get scary.
Those looking for a cheap thrill in Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, might feel a little tingle in their loins from time to time, but the film isn’t about titillation. Valkeapää uses domination and submission as a very apt metaphor for letting go, and even though the people in this situation may be clad from head to toe in leather and chains, they are as human as any man or woman walking down the street. The ability to utilize this setting to explore grief and catharsis is actually a pretty perfect use of the BDSM space.
Juha is a man in pain, a pain he holds onto as the one feeling he experienced at his wife’s death that connects him to that moment. He can’t see beyond the pain, he lives within it, not allowing the rest of his psyche a chance to breathe. He suffers because, on some level, he feels as though it would be disrespectful not to. What he doesn’t realize is the pain he puts everyone else through, especially his daughter, who, without a mother, is potentially suffering the most.
With Mona he’s forced to let go of that tight control he holds over his own emotions. However, as an addict, he starts to realize that the consensual punishment he receives at her hands delivers less in terms of the high he seeks, and when he asks her to up the ante, things border on dangerous, and she gets very uncomfortable. She doesn’t completely understand what she’s doing for him, and he doesn’t completely understand that he doesn’t need her to reach the cathartic apotheosis he seeks.
It’s a dance, but what neither realizes is that they are both trying to lead, and therefore they end up stepping all over one another’s toes. It’s inevitable that they’ll clash, that one or both of them will abandon the dance, but it takes a personal apocalypse to make them both realize what they mean to each other. This climax is cruel, painful, frightening, and exactly what Juha needs.
Though Valkeapää's film is inarguably a darkly comic piece, for the most part the comedy is so black that it barely even registers. For most the film will appeal on a dramatic level, as the story of a man supplicating himself to a higher power who just happen to prefer patent leather and chains over a priest’s frock. It’s an incredible piece of filmmaking that uses the very particular visual language of submission/domination to tell a story so full of heady emotion that at times it threatens to burst at the seams.
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants navigates the emotional minefield of grief, and makes it through to the other side with scars that tell their own stories. This isn’t a pretty story, it isn’t a love story, and it isn’t a story in which everyone lives happily ever after. It’s the story of a man who had sunk so deeply into his own grief that he could barely see the world right in front of him, and the electric jolt it took to wake him up to the possibility that there might be life after his wife’s death.
The film ends in an ecstatic burst of self-revelatory catharsis. It’s the kind of moment we all hope to have in our lives, a joy and confidence so pure and innocent that it almost makes sense that one must travel through hell to reach it. Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, on the other hand, is pure cinematic joy, no qualification necessary. This is a gem that is bound to have serious legs on the festival circuit, and with a little luck, on cinema screens around the world.