Friday 20 March 2020

Whip it: "Dogs Don't Wear Pants"

The much-missed late-night review show Collins and Maconie's Movie Club used to have a regular feature called Rum Film of the Week, denoting that episode's most notably left-of-centre theatrical release - the title least likely to be playing on Screen One at your local Odeon. No question about it, this week's Rum Film of the Week would be J-P Valkeapää's Dogs Don't Wear Pants. Who knows what audiences will be minded to stream at the end of a week such as this, but it may as well be a Finnish drama about a bereaved heart surgeon who finds some release from his woes amid Helsinki's BDSM community. I mean, it's different, right? Spiky, too: Valkeapää wants to jab a response out of us, even if that's just a pre-emptive flinch. And so his opening rural idyll takes on shades of Don't Look Now, as the surgeon Juha (Pekka Strang) fails to save his wife from drowning after a swimming accident; the credits play out over open heart surgery. This is not going to be an easy watch for anyone averse to DIY fingernail removal or dentistry; the first ten minutes threaten us with full-frame tongue piercing by way of a gentle warm-up, although the camera will eventually relent and creep downstairs to a dungeon where Juha has his first, fateful meeting with Mona (Krista Kosonen), the dominatrix who will bash him into better shape. The real shock comes when you realise Valkeapää isn't just here to shock, or to gawp: he's sincerely interested in the surgeon as something more than one of life's whipping boys.

The wholly sex-positive line pulling us through the film's varied punishments is that, by literalising Juha's emotional pain, all these gags, collars and chains might provide some kind of therapy, a curious though not implausible means of repairing his own broken heart. (In that striking title lurks mistranslated wordplay: here, the command will be physician, heel thyself.) BDSM gets Juha out of the house, into new routines, provides him with physical contact (ain't this just the perfect week to have released it?); we know something positive will develop from these interactions when he nervily shows up at the door to Mona's dressing room to inquire whether she wouldn't mind strangling him a little longer the following week. All of a sudden, he's making demands, expressing himself, rather than meekly accepting whatever roughing-up life puts him through. Valkeapää also grasps how intensely theatrical this scene is: he understands there's a charge that comes from watching a man and a woman enacting intimate power struggles on a neon-lit set, and he shapes it into unexpected twists and turns, like the session that goes too far and ends with the surgeon being returned to his place of work on a gurney. Close attention is paid both to the carapace of make-up the dominatrix applies, and to costumes (a summer dress) that have some extracurricular meaning; you're reminded that the real perversity of S&M is that it's one of very few forms of intimacy where everybody spends half the time dressing up.

What's exemplary is how much is implied rather than explicitly depicted; it's a quiet model of "show don't tell" cinema. A slow pan over a shelf of strap-ons and other accessories conjures its own stories, maybe fantasies, perhaps nightmares; sporadic dives into the hero's murky, watery dreamlife suggest the extent to which he's still treading grief and guilt. The women of the piece come more gradually into focus: the teenage daughter (Ilona Huhta) feeling her way into adulthood in the absence of parental guidance, the overground date (Oona Airola) who offers Juha a more conventional form of hands-on, but finds she can't bring herself to throttle anybody during a fraught, funny hook-up. Mona remains more of a mystery, and that mystery isn't where she goes by night, but who on earth she might be by day; beneath a Edith Scob wig, Kosonen exhibits much the same compelling mix of fierceness and birdlike fragility we associate with Noomi Rapace. Following her to find out, as Juha does, leads Dogs Don't Wear Pants into a genuinely edgy final act: that dentistry is going to leave some viewers screaming their safeword - it's not so much what's shown as the scene's queasy mix of horror and comedy - though it does mark a turning point in our patient's recovery, and permits this idiosyncratic study of human extremes its unexpectedly buoying ending. Those who'd have felt self-conscious buying tickets in person for the Finnish bondage movie can now dial the film up in the privacy of their own home; by this time next Friday, with Screen One shuttered, the week's rummest film may just be the most watched movie in the country. Strange days indeed.

Dogs Don't Wear Pants is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

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