J.P. Valkeapää’s Dogs Don’t Wear Pants is, in the words of its director, a comedic exploration of the bond created by BDSM. That bond arguably is in itself a source of comedy for the viewer in that it signifies something that the viewer cannot entirely understand -the ‘bond’ representing not just solely an understanding between two people but also, as is the case with this film, an understanding of the cathartic impulses that reside in one’s mind. If we are to concede that nothing is inherently comedic and at the same time only comedic strictly because human activity has somehow affected it -as Henri Bergson suggested (using his example of a funny article of clothing -when one laughs at clothing they don’t laugh at the material from which the clothing is made, but at the composition of the material)- the film then operates in the same vein as Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) or Barbet Schroeder’s Maîtresse (1976), extrapolating the artifice of BDSM and in doing so, willing to laugh at itself.
Like Belle de Jour, Dogs Don’t Wear Pants is set in a bourgeois world where its protagonist gradually learns that he is a masochist. The film, which made its North American premiere in the Contemporary World Cinema program at the Toronto International Film Festival, follows Juha (Pekka Strang), a doctor who while accompanying his daughter Elli (Ilona Huhta) to a tattoo parlor to have her tongue pierced, wanders down a corridor and happens upon a BDSM torture dungeon. Intrigued, he reaches out to touch a figure who is bound in a leather suit when from out of nowhere, Mona (Krista Kosonen), slaps him and pins him to the floor. Intrigued further, Juha later contacts Mona, asking for a session.
Juha’s plight is not so different from that of Severine in Belle de Jour. While Severine was emotionally removed from her marriage, Juha is a widower, whose wife died from drowning. From her death, a distinct kink emerges: Juha uses his wife’s perfumes as an aid in masturbation, which develops into a kink for asphyxiation. While being choked by Mona, Juha has visions of his wife submerged in water, the loss of oxygen bringing him figuratively closer to her by recreating the site of her death. Also like Buñuel’s film, Dogs Don’t Wear Pants dissects the filmic image of BDSM and in doing so distills humor from its narrative. That humor is in part based on the notion that the viewer does not entirely understand the connections made by characters between physical pleasure and physical pain. While the film occasionally addresses the physical dangers of BDSM (Juha at one point loses consciousness from asphyxiation), at no point does it make a value judgment with regard to the practice.
Unique to Dogs Don’t Wear Pants as well is how Valkeapää offsets BDSM sequences with scenes following the protagonists at their daytime occupations -Juha is a surgeon, Mona a physical therapist- that illustrate the binary between public environments and fantastical ones. The photography will often accentuate this contrast by portraying both worlds as largely artificial. In the dungeon, Mona appears in elaborate makeup as a solitary face against a field of black and is often seen moving in slow motion, while at her day job she is not made up and dresses in a strictly functional way -hooded sweatshirts, clinic scrubs, and so on- and is lit with diffuse light.
In both roles, Mona is a provider. The divide between the two is complicated in a scene where, during a session, the two ‘break character’ and kiss, and immediately regret doing so. Nevertheless, the game between Juha and Mona inside the dungeon begins to spill out into their social lives. The line between ‘relationship’ and ‘transaction’ begins to blur, and it is there where the two begin to have trouble expressing themselves. Juha eventually gives Mona a dress worn formerly by his wife. The dress reappears in a scene late in the film where Juha gives Mona an ultimatum that she can harm him as much as she likes, provided that she carry out his favorite acts of asphyxiation and scent. Feeling as if he has crossed a line, he flees her apartment before she, in a conflation of the roles of healer and provider, reemerges with the dress. With this scene, Dogs Don’t Wear Pants uses film objects and BDSM objects interchangeably. The bag Mona uses to asphyxiate Juha and the perfume have no inherent erotic value save what Juha attributes to them, just as the dress has no dramatic value to either Mona or the viewer but for Mona’s introduction of the dress removed from a BDSM context. One might even interpret the character’s name (from either the Greek ‘solitude’ or the Latin ‘advise’) as a reflection of the push-pull between her two social roles.
It also behooves the viewer to distinguish the film’s sadomasochism -which is shared and performative, residing in Mona asserting control and in Juha acting out a ‘narrative’ conflict and resolution- and its fetishism -wherein the perfume and clothing of Juha’s deceased wife are satisfying as objects themselves, or what Laura Mulvey called “the image in direct erotic rapport with the spectator.” The viewer, for instance, may not necessarily understand the story arc of Juha’s thumbnail, which is injured early on the film and slowly rots away, resulting in a scene where he finally pulls it out. The scene is wince-inducing for the viewer to the point of nerve-wracking humor because of Juha’s desire to displace the thumbnail and not because of the thumbnail itself. Further, for Juha the act of self-harm in this case is also a device for escape from his feelings of grief over his deceased wife.
A similar event takes place in a scene where Juha and Satu (Oona Airola) are in bed together. While Satu hints at a kink of her own by putting on dramatic classical music during sex, Juha is less interested in actual sex, insisting that Satu wear his wife’s perfume and choke him. She laughs at this, primarily because the perfume and the asphyxiation have no erotic component for her. In one sense, Satu might stand in for the viewer in her finding Juha’s kinks humorous or strange, though the scene also functions as a device for understanding that any connection between erotica and sex does not exist by necessity, and that those connections are arbitrary. Valkeapää’s film, then, is ultimately about humor found in how the construction of erotic fantasy is based on arbitrary connections between disparate objects.