By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
In some of its most famous forays into mainstream cinema, BDSM seems to almost instantly bestow some filmmakers with the belief they have found a one-way ticket straight to Cutting Edge Town. Instantly, with a few consensual slaps and saucily deployed feather dusters, we’re meant to believe they’ve instantly been crowned monarchs of the hardcore, their extremes more extreme than mere vanilla mortals could ever imagine. Many of us, however, will not so readily accept this as evidence of an epoch-defining radical approach to sexuality, but rather a somewhat corny attempt to shock in the most milquetoast way possible to sell movie tickets, all part of that good old fashioned, tried and true tacky marketing approach we might label “Operation Fearless Badass.”
For better or for worse, if this is the cynical headspace with which we approach this kind of material in the mainstream, specific scenes in films like Adrian Lyne’s 9½ Weeks (1986), Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992) and most recently of course Sam Taylor-Johnson’s 2015 blockbuster 50 Shades of Grey, perhaps by default become the go-to case studies in this category. But like most things, it’s probably a little more complicated than such reductive thinking might suggest. As Peter Strickland noted when I told him in a public Q&A session in 2019 at the Melbourne International Film Festival that his queer BDSM magnum opus The Duke of Burgundy (2014) had been released on home entertainment in Australia with the film review pull-quote “the thinking person’s 50 Shades of Grey,” he was typically generous in his response; while certainly not comfortable with this descriptor, he freely admitted that he enjoyed Taylor-Johnson’s film because it had an unironic Mills & Boon quality that he found quite sincere.
Strickland’s response reminded me that the kind of sweeping cynicism demonstrated earlier in my review here is, of course, always in the eye of the beholder. From this perspective, it’s important to note that while it’s mainstream films that we might roll our eyes at and dismiss as all a bit corny, when we move into more arthouse or cult film terrain our attitudes change; as, perhaps, the films themselves do also, morphing to suit their intended audiences. But whether it’s bestselling book-to-film adaptations with big budgets and big names or edgier, more niche films, these movies often share a similar yet vaguely defined thematic palette where the same keywords tend to pop up more often than not: agency, identity, transformation, and acceptance.
We need only recall some of the more revered examples of movies in this category to see how these themes can intersect and manifest in strikingly different ways, across different production contexts, and by notably different filmmakers. From Barbet Schoeder’s Maîtresse (1975) to Steven Shainberg’s Secretary (2002), David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) to Stuart Urban’s Preaching to the Perverted (1997), there’s a veritable rainbow of different ways that sexual pleasure, consent, and power play has manifested across film history. We need only look towards Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess’s recent documentary Morgana (2019) to find a powerful real-life instance of how these factors can intersect in the journey of an actual real-life person, reflecting broader social assumptions regarding what is acceptable and the hypocrisies that determine what is not, almost by default.
Which all leads us to J-P Valkeapää’s Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Koirat eivät käytä housuja) which had its world premiere at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight section in May 2019 and is now streaming on Shudder. The film begins with the traumatic moment its protagonist will return to ritualistically throughout the film, an exquisitely shot but harrowing sequence where the wife of protagonist Juha (Pekka Strang) drowns while on a family holiday with their young daughter Elli (Ellen Karppo). His failed underwater rescue becomes central to Juha many years later when the now teenage Elli (Ilona Huhta) inadvertently causes him to cross paths with dominatrix Mona (Krista Kosonen), an encounter that changes his life. To the world, he is a heart surgeon and she works as a physical therapist. But their secret other lives – lives which become increasingly not-so-secret – find them taking on alternate roles through BDSM, where they swap safe words for the dropping of a glass ball in a metal bowl. Their alternate roles in their intimate encounters at first seem diametrically opposed to their more conservative, culturally acceptable facades but, with Juha ravaged to the point of emotional paralysis by grief, it is through Mona and her particular skill set that he begins a somatic, sensual, and emotional journey through deep pain to something neither her nor the audience may expect.
While Valkeapää brings a distinct authorial voice to Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, much of the movie’s magic stems from the electricity that visibly drives so many of the film’s strongest elements. Co-written by filmmaker Juhana Lumme, the cinematography by Pietari Peltola – especially the recurring underwater flashbacks that haunt Juha – reflects the strength of a creative partnership that the two had previously solidified on Valkeapää’s 2014 feature, They Have Escaped (He ovat paenneet). Most immediately, of course, is the perfect casting of Strang as Juha himself; while the rest of the cast are pitch perfect (Kosonen as Mona in particular is irreplaceable), it is Strang who largely carries the film’s at times overwhelming emotional weight which in lesser hands could feel hammy or overcooked. There’s a clinical detachment to Strang’s perfect that perfectly compliments his character’s profession, and Strang brings elements to this role from his already impressively diverse filmography, from the title role in Dome Karukoski’s Tom of Finland (2017) to voicing a character in the recent screen adaptation of the Tove Jansson-inspired Moominvalley (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it one-liner referring to the latter in Dogs Don’t Wear Pants is emblematic of the film’s extremely dark but often very funny sense of humor).
The spectacle of kink culture is undeniably a part of what Valkeapää consciously brings to the mix in terms of what makes Dogs Don’t Wear Pants such an eye-opening experience. But there is at stake here much more on the conceptual sophistication level than mere ooh-err-missus “Carry On Pervert” titillations. It’s one thing to admire the film for the intelligence and sensitivity with which it deals with grief and the sometimes peculiar paths we take to work through it, but quite something else when considering precisely how it does this to reconceive and complicate those familiar themes of so many earlier BDSM-centric films – agency, identity, transformation, and acceptance – from the ground up. The window dressing might scream of flamboyant, sensationalized sexual excess, but the success of Dogs Don’t Wear Pants lies in its genuine open mindedness to sexuality which underscores its thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and humanity.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has written six books on cult, horror and exploitation film including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the Bram Stoker Award nominated Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019), and the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). Alexandra is a board member of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a programmer at Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the United States.