Dogs Don’t Wear Pants and How the Death Drive Can Bring Us Back to Life

Movies Features Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää
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<i>Dogs Don&#8217;t Wear Pants</i> and How the Death Drive Can Bring Us Back to Life

Every February since its release, my answer to the question of “What should I watch with my date on Valentine’s Day?” remains the same: Writer/director Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää’s criminally underseen Finnish erotic black comedy Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, in which a depressed doctor named Juha (Pekka Strang) with repressed dead-wife trauma journeys to self-actualization through a submissive role in his relationship with Mona (Krista Kosonen), a physical therapist by day, dominatrix by night. If your date can squirm their way through Valkeapää’s Yorgos Lanthimos-like moments of intimate bodily harm, served with dry humor, and come out the other end with their heart melted—bopping along to the exquisitely curated electronic dance soundtrack—I’d say they’re a keeper. Dogs Don’t Wear Pants is a darkly funny, paradoxical exploration of healing through sex and self-destruction that will take your breath away.

Juha is not your ordinary sub, or dog, as Mona frequently calls him; Juha’s unusually strong lust for death pushes him closer and closer to the brink as his sessions with Mona get progressively darker, which draws her in at first, but eventually freaks her out. As Mona suffocates Juha, he is able to reconnect with his dead wife, who ambiguously died by drowning after getting caught in a fishing net while their family was on vacation. Although Juha is able to connect with the memory of her in this unconventional way, but it threatens to destroy him when he goes too far. Valkeapää illustrates Juha’s strangled moments of freedom with a quiet stillness in a way that blurs the lines between pleasure and pain; a pale blue color palette and eerily soft sounds of wind chimes evoke a sense of calm as oxygen cuts off from Juha’s brain. These moments are juxtaposed against the neon lighting and fast-paced nature of real life, which eludes Juha completely. He’s only comfortable with himself in his BDSM bubble.

This need to repeat past trauma—Mona lovingly placing a plastic bag over his head as he begs for more—makes Juha a fitting Freudian case study. In his 1920 essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Sigmund Freud outlined his late-career search for a mental principle other than the pleasure principle due to three types of conflicting evidence, the first being the occurrence of repetition in trauma. Freud found that subjects, often World War I veterans, would reenact their traumatic experiences in direct contradiction with his idea that the id motivates us to always follow pleasure and avoid pain (the pleasure principle). He speculated that emotionally damaged people seek to repeat painful self-destructive patterns because of “an urge in organic life to restore an earlier state of things,” as Juha seeks the pleasure of being with his wife again through the sweet pain of Mona crushing his windpipe.

Where Freud is pessimistic as a psychoanalyst, Valkeapää is hopeful as a storyteller. Of course, Juha doesn’t find salvation through his self-destructive tendencies. His habitual recreational asphyxiation puts tremendous pressure on both his work and home lives. He uncharacteristically starts skipping important events, such as his daughter’s band recital, and showing up to work bloodied and battered. But these are side effects from his connection with Mona, the person who has seen these ugly parts of him and doesn’t judge. Although Juha’s death drive causes significant damage to his physical body and interpersonal relationships, it also led him to Mona. When he tries to resist his death drive by going on a date with his daughter’s music teacher, she laughs in his face when he reveals his specific sexual appetite; you can still hear her obnoxious snickering as he scurries out of her apartment. But Mona, a fellow freak in the sheets, uncritically understands what Juha needs from her, without a single word exchanged, when they gaze into each other’s eyes as she chokes him for the first time. When it’s love at first whack, words aren’t necessary.

Valkeapää mirrors Juha and Mona’s first connection with the film’s purely blissful ending, where Juha freely dances at an underground sex club, finally happy in his own skin. Juha and Mona may have suffered through trials and tribulations together, but the core flame of seeing one another for who you really are stays the same. The final shot is one of the most purely euphoric in recent cinematic memory: After finally gaining access to the exclusive BDSM club, Juha breaks out into a grin that proudly displays his prominently missing tooth (Mona pulled it during one of their gorier sessions) and makes eye contact with Mona across the dance floor. Again, words aren’t necessary—they just get each other. Theirs is love that doesn’t deny the grotesque, but embraces it without shame.


Brooklyn-based film writer Katarina Docalovich was raised in an independent video store and never really left. Her passions include sipping lime seltzer, trying on perfume and spending hours theorizing about Survivor. You can find her scattered thoughts as well as her writing on Twitter.