Written and directed by Ninja Thyberg.
Starring Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle, Evelyn Claire, Chris Cock, Dana DeArmond, and Kendra Spade.
19-year-old Linnéa leaves her small-town life in Sweden for Los Angeles with the aim to become the world’s next big porn star, but the road to her goal turns out to be bumpier than she imagined.
As much as Ninja Thyberg’s startlingly un-sexy debut Pleasure may focus its lens squarely on the porn industry, it’s also one of the most generally frank and perceptive films about sex ever made – and how sex comes to define so many of the uneven power structures held up within society today.
When we first meet 19-year-old Swede Linnéa (Sofia Kappel), she’s passing through LAX, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as she hopes to make a name for herself in the porn industry under the moniker Bella Cherry. Despite her industrious drive to become porn’s next mega-star, the reality soon dawns that there’s so much more to success than mere talent and enthusiasm.
Thyberg makes her confronting thesis clear from the film’s opening minutes, characterised by an opening credits roll set to overlapping, performed grunts and groans, a close-up of Bella shaving her pubic area, and her brusque claim that she’s in L.A. because she “likes to fuck.”
Pleasure is a film that commits so thoroughly and audaciously to its subject matter that Hollywood’s usual attempts to depict sex seem positively demure and puritanical by comparison. But to be fair, the porn industry is a particularly outlandish quarter of sexuality, and one the film won’t need to tell you is ordered around the fancies of men.
If Thyberg’s film isn’t strictly a hit-piece against the industry, it does bring its toxic core to light in incredibly upsetting, upfront fashion. The mockery of the young women getting their starts in the industry, and the manner in which they’re sent through various conveyor-belt-like rites of passage, double-underlines how utterly disposable a “non-compliant” performer truly is.
The result is a singularly alarming cautionary tale about the pursuit of fame, in a field where the fastest road to it is by serving a market that finds titillation in violence and abuse against women, where having hang-ups is an easy way for producers to pass on you, and where submitting to their demands might mean losing one’s sense of self.
Bella’s discomfort during several of her shoots is met with a thinly-veiled, performative concern by her scene partners and crew members. “Take all the time you need,” they tell her, while near-immediately questioning whether she can continue and insisting she’s a brave woman who can surely make it to the end.
A charitable reading would call it horribly manipulative, but it frequently qualifies to actual gaslighting, leading to a nauseating mid-film scene in which Bella partakes in an extreme two-on-one shoot involving “performed” abuse that’s really anything but.
The lines of power, if already obvious, are sharply drawn throughout, highlighting a system which conspires to pit women against one another, as is made painfully apparent when Bella, fearing for her future prospects, refuses to back up another actress who calls out a prominent male performer for his abusive behaviour. Throw in alcohol, drugs, and lavish parties, and it’s easy to see how even the most mentally stable person could find their spirt broken.
In slighter terms, Thyberg also leaps off to examine other unsavoury aspects of the industry, particularly the flagrantly racist “fetish” premium placed on even the tamest interracial relations – referred to here, by a black man no less, as the ultimate taboo. And though the male performers on these sets clearly wield a greater degree of power than the women, we do get scattered hints at how their lives – some of them, at least – are also filled with fear and anxiety.
Pleasure may be about the porn industry, but it’s not just about the porn industry, much of its commentary on female agency in the workplace applicable to most every professional field, given the sexism that has pervaded working culture for as long as jobs have existed.
And yet despite all this, it wouldn’t be at all accurate to call Pleasure a sex-negative film, even if we’re given virtually no information, seemingly intentionally, about Linnéa’s non-porn sex life. It’s also somehow not a relentlessly dreary dirge for those women pulled into the soulless industry cesspool; many of Bella’s interactions with her fellow actresses are suffused with enormous warmth and humour, particularly her unexpectedly touching friendship with the more experienced Joy (Revika Anne Reustle).
Thyberg’s direction quite masterfully ensures that scarcely a single frame of her film is much sexy at all; in similar fashion to Steve McQueen’s Shame, she uses unflattering angles, flat lighting, and discordant editing to generate an entirely different meaning. This reaches its grim zenith when Thyberg covers Bella’s trip to Las Vegas’ AVN Expo, where the focus is less on the parade of lithe bodies working the circuit, and instead on the sea of drooling, camera-totting men.
A hard cut from Bella happily dealing with expo punters to crying in front of a mirror is so acceptably real that it’s easy to forget that, unlike most of the cast, Kappel isn’t actually a real-life porn actress. This is an almost impossibly daring and courageous performance, not merely deigning to the gimmick of an actress immersing herself in an unknown field but bringing a stinging emotional plausibility to the part at all times.
Pleasure is as discomforting a portrait of the modern porn industry as it is a candid and empathetic one. In an unforgettable acting debut, Sofia Kappel is nothing short of hypnotic.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.