After his wife drowns in a tragic accident, Juha (Pekka Strang) enters a lengthy bout of depression, unable to connect with either his daughter, Elli (Ilhona Huhta), or his own feelings. A chance encounter with dominatrix Mona (Krista Kosonen) sets him on a new path of discovery.
An erotic, blackly comic drama, Finnish director J.-P. Valkeapää’s third feature is as much about the transformative power of grief as much as it is about its masochistic self-perpetuation. Cinematographer Pietari Peltola’s use of colour is key to Dogs Don’t Wear Pants’ narrative arc, while water and liquid motifs recur throughout. Green dominates the film’s prologue, as Juha and Elli fish in the tree-lined lake, bringing home a pike for supper. A dreamlike sequence sees Juha’s wife about to dive into the algae-tinged water – setting up a surreal tone that haunts Juha through his journey – before skipping to his realisation that she hasn’t surfaced for some time.
Diving in, he is enveloped by greenish mire, discovering his partner tangled in a discarded net. He stays down too long, almost drowning himself before suddenly the lake is not of silty murk, clear, crystal blue, his wife swimmingly serenely and naked before him. Before he can contemplate this moment of mortal ecstasy he is dragged, flopping and gasping like a fish, back into the air. Skipping ahead years later and colour has drained from the frame. Elli is now a happy, popular teenager, while Juha exists in a grey fugue, distant with co-workers, forgets his daughter’s school band concerts and passively acquiesces to her minor attempts at teen rebellion. One such act – getting her tongue pierced – leads Juha to a dominatrix dungeon adjacent to the tattoo parlour.
The space Juha is in – like his vision of his wife on the lake jetty – is surreal, seemingly disconnected from the mundane reality of supervising his daughter as she gets a piercing. Sex toys line the shelves of the room like abstract elemental forms, while the centrepiece – a spiky rubber bodysuit – captivates Juha before Mona catches him snooping, knocks him to the ground and strangles him. Colour returns to the frame – now as the hot red of the dungeon lighting, transporting him briefly back to that moment of aquatic serenity in the lake. This juxtaposition between blue and red – passive serenity and self-destructive fire – play out as Juha becomes increasingly obsessed with finding that moment again.
As Juha explores his new fetish – in as dorkish and dad-like a way as possible – Mona is apparently just as obsessed with their developing relationship as Juha, culminating in an utterly eye-wincing scene in her apartment that gives the torture sequence in Marathon Man a run for its money. In another scene, Juha picks off a rotten thumbnail as he is being warned by a colleague about his increasingly erratic behaviour at work. It’s easy to read these images and his fetish for asphyxiation as signifiers of his desire for self-destruction. Yet the film’s conclusion, subtly resolving the juxtaposition between the blue and red motifs, suggests that this was never a story of destruction or even redemption, but of metamorphosis.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell