Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (2019) Review: Gasping for Air, Pining for Pain

A fish out of water gasping, vibrant flowers, the sound of the wind blowing against clothes drying on a line, drowning in a flooded seaweed ceiling. Most of our memories are only as strong as our senses. We don’t retain a perfect, objective recollection of what was. We only remember what we feel, see, touch, hear or smell. Director J.-P. Valkeapää uses this human fallibility to brilliant effect for the opening of Dogs Don’t Wear Pants.

The movie recounts a story about loss, grief, pain, escape, suffering and finally contentment. In the opening sequence of Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, we are only provided certain glimpses of what happened to the wife (played by Ester Geislerová) of protagonist Juha (played by Pekka Strang). Far from an explanation, we don’t even get a clear picture of whether she committed suicide or the drowning was an accident. It just happened, leaving Juha to pick up the pieces and look after their daughter Elli.

Fast forward, Elli is old enough to be trying to set her father up with her teacher, but Juha is stuck in time. He is a ghost from the past. He has barely survived, sleepwalking through operations at his hospital, not paying attention to his colleague’s jokes and using his deceased wife’s perfume to masturbate.

A chance encounter with Mona (played by Krista Kosonen) in a sex dungeon opens his eyes to new possibilities. Strangulation brings Juha closer to the moment he almost drowned, trying to save his wife. The experience makes him feel close to her in their last moments together. The brilliant opening shots of Dogs Don’t Wear Pants provides the perfect fertile ground to return, to illustrate how Juha feels and why that moment is sacred for him.

Juha literally has a spring in his step as he walks the washed-out hospital corridors. However, the newfound happiness is short-lived, as Juha tries to keep recreating the memory. Consequently, he puts his own life in danger and makes the lives of Elli, Mona spiral out of control.

Sound effects and music are used to great effect in Dogs Don’t Wear Pants to set the mood and spell out each character’s internal struggles. The music at times is more akin to jarring sounds to establish the uneasy atmosphere and discordance in Juha’s mind. We feel for him as he suffers physical injuries, being pepper-sprayed in the face and even giggling humiliation in the bedroom as he keeps chasing his past.

Dogs Don’t Wear Pants mostly hinges on the acting prowess of Pekka Strang. He is more than capable of carrying the whole film on his shoulders. Krista Kosonen does a good job of fleshing out Mona, who barely gets enough screen time for a second lead character. The film shows us just enough of her day job as a physiotherapist to peel off the coarse, unknowing, mysterious layers covering the enigmatic dominatrix.

Kosonen’s scene-stealing performance comes near the end of Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, as she breaks down in Juha’s arms. The entire film’s emotional detachment orgasms at the climax, as Mona shares a tender kiss with Juha. Both united in their solitude.

Director J.-P. Valkeapää, who is a co-writer for the film along with Juhana Lumme, elevates a predominantly by the numbers story to an exciting, suspenseful narrative. However, the film does suffer from a long drawn out conclusion that seems to be unsure of where to go and largely plays it safe.

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