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CANNES 2019 Directors’ Fortnight

J-P Valkeapää • Director of Dogs Don’t Wear Pants

“BDSM is so much more than just latex”

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- CANNES 2019: Cineuropa talked to Jussi-winning director J-P Valkeapää about his striking third film, Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, screening in the Directors’ Fortnight

J-P Valkeapää  • Director of Dogs Don’t Wear Pants

Finnish director J-P Valkeapää, last seen accompanying two teenage runaways in They Have Escaped [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: J-P Valkeapää
film profile
]
, will be bringing some much-needed pleasure and pain to the Cannes Film Festival with his third feature, Dogs Don’t Wear Pants [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: J-P Valkeapää
film profile
]
. Set to be presented in the Directors’ Fortnight, it focuses on Juha (Pekka Strang), who, after his wife’s tragic drowning, develops a penchant for strangulation, and dominatrix Mona (Krista Kosonen), who is happy to help.

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Cineuropa: You said once that the world of BDSM is usually portrayed in films in a certain way, but the reality of it can be quite different.
J-P Valkeapää:
I have only seen a couple of films that do it well: Barbet Schroeder’s Mistress, and Secretary with Maggie Gyllenhaal. The general portrayal in, say, the likes of Law & Order is of something that can only lead to death [laughs]. It’s like tobacco and alcohol – it’s bad for you. I wanted to avoid that. I knew what role-play was, but I didn’t know anything specific, so I had a professional dominatrix come in to consult. I wanted to understand what happens to people during the session and after it, because so much of it takes place inside your head. When I went to her house, I noticed all these men in the garden, working and trimming the bushes. She was giving them orders. I asked: “Are these your slaves?” She said: “Of course. How else would I keep this place in order?” The whole banality of this situation was a revelation to me. BDSM is so much more than just latex.

The encounters you show feel very real indeed – they are messy, and things go wrong. Is that why you made Juha a surgeon? To make people think he knows the boundaries of his body?
But he doesn’t! I liked the physicality of what he does. It has something in common with BDSM – something to do with the mechanics of it all and this extreme pain. I felt this world was a beautiful tool in order to delve into the emotions he is going through, all these stages of grief. Our goal was not to make it sentimental, and we really didn’t want this “saintly widower” figure. There is so much aggression involved in the mourning process, and Pekka told me he wanted to play it raw and open, and give an emotionally naked performance. He really went for it.

Last time we talked, you mentioned Billy Wilder as an inspiration of sorts, but based on the synopsis alone, it may seem like a really dark story. And yet I was laughing my head off!
The script was developed over many years, and when I joined the project in 2014, [producer] Aleksi Bardy gave me this basic idea: a man’s wife dies in a drowning accident, and he almost drowns, too, trying to save her, hallucinating that she is still alive. Then, ten years later, he starts seeing her again while being suffocated. I liked that there were two sides to this story: it was hot and cold, perverse and sublime. But the challenge was to make it relatable. I wanted people to care for these characters, understand why he decides to do it and not get too shocked by the BDSM scene. We kept getting rejections from the Finnish Film Foundation, so there was a lot of time, and at a certain point I saw Manchester by the Sea. There is this long sequence when they play “Adagio per Archi e Organo in G Minor”, and you find out that this man’s children had burnt to death while he was out getting some beer, and I just thought: “It doesn’t feel right.” I needed some lightness. Then I started to work on a mini-series with novelist Kari Hotakainen, and we were having so much fun, putting the most ridiculous things in there. I think some of that joy leaked into the film. Of course, you are a Pole, so it might be something that only Polish and Finnish people will get.

I see your film as a romantic comedy. But there are so many clichés you seem to be spoofing, like scoring sex scenes to pop songs, for example.
When Juha tries to have sex with another woman [played by Oona Airola], the music you hear is actually this “Adagio” from Manchester by the Sea. You can’t really use it for tragic scenes any more, so sex is all you have left [laughs]. Of course, there is a meet cute, and the film is aware of these conventions. But my focus wasn’t on trying to make a commentary on the entire genre.

With Krista’s character, I needed to emphasise that what she does is not a symptom. The dominatrix I met clearly enjoyed her job, and she wasn’t a victim. She was so professional and pragmatic, which is why I wanted to have elements of “normal life” in the film as well. Also on a visual level, as it’s going from neon-lit dungeons to these very down-to-earth scenes between a father and daughter. I wanted to show some joy and happiness because there is no need to demonise BDSM – it’s a community that has welcomed us.

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