Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure is no Boogie Nights. Her forensic and explicit examination of a young woman’s rise though the LA porn industry is often a tough watch, but it’s a bold and very impressive debut.
19-year old Swede Linnéa (Sofia Kappel), fresh off the plane, is determined to make a name for herself. Ambitious and resourceful, she starts in low-level porn shoots (pornstar name Bella Cherry) but soon she is manoeuvring herself gradually upwards. She seems happy to exploit her blonde, virginal, youthful appearance, and as she gets deeper into the industry, starring in increasingly more taboo or difficult shoots, she becomes ever more ruthless and focused, not always realising the impact the industry appears to be having on her own personality.
Pleasure is often a very challenging film, difficult to watch in places. Before moving into filmmaking, Thyberg researched the porn industry as an academic, and so was well informed of the industry’s set up and concerns. In 2013 she made a fiction short (also called Pleasure) on the subject, but realised that because her native Sweden doesn’t really have a porn industry the only way to explore it authentically would be to shoot and set it in L.A. Eight years later we get the feature film version, a project that has clearly had a long thoughtful gestation. Thyberg recruited most of her cast and crew from the real porn industry – one reason why some scenes are very explicit (although it doesn’t go as far as showing unsimulated penetrative sex on screen), and I imagine this and her academic research combine to give us a very accurate depiction.
For all its excess, the film is remarkably detached and structurally formal. Interspersed with scenes of Bella making contacts and acquaintances, networking at parties and cold-calling producers, this is a succession of depicted porn shoots, each one more extreme than the one preceding, each one opening the next door in Bella’s career. And with each shoot pushing her boundaries further, Bella becomes more ruthless and desensitised. Quickly shedding her initial red-lines (she initially said she would only do boy-girl, girl-girl and solo because she’s ‘just starting’), the depictions of Bella’s shoots also test the audience, taking us deeper into the extremities of the industry, or at least of the various sub-categories.
Despite its explicitness, Pleasure is not voyeuristic. Thyberg never lets her camera adopt a ‘male gaze’. When performing scenes Bella is increasingly dehumanised, for the porn-shoot camera she is no more than a body, a prop, and the camera watches impassively. This distances the viewer and simultaneously invites speculation around Bella’s own often placid reaction.
For Thyberg is careful to keep her lead character detached and her motives undefined. Early in the film as a joke Bella darkly pretends her father raped her as a child, allowing the film to neatly mock and dismiss the stereotypical sex-industry back-story. By contract, the few glimpses of her background via occasional phone calls with her mother suggest a loving, supportive family upbringing. Bella is rebelling, but not enough to admit the nature of her new career to her family, nor has she severed her connections to home that she is beyond seeking solace from her family when feeling upset or alone.
But essentially, Bella remains a sympathetic blank, somehow deadened in her ambition, and we can only speculate her motives or reasons.
First time actor Sofia Kappel as Bella gives an exceptionally nuanced and bold performance. Kappel’s physical performance is brave – few actors would be willing to commit so fully – yet this is complemented by a surprisingly understated and sympathetic emotional depiction. Contrasting with the extreme subject matter, Bella’s character is mostly subdued (Bella is a world away from Nomi in Verhoeven’s Showgirls). Remarkably Kappel expresses a real depth of character within Bella’s limited outward emotional range. And when Thyberg presents a couple of particularly upsetting scenes – for Bella and for the audience – Kappel’s otherwise low key performance means she has a lot of headroom to make Bella’s sudden distress all the more impactful and upsetting.
It’s not all a solo performance however. Bella forms strong bonds with the other young women with who she shares a house, and in particular roommate Joy (Revika Anne Reustle). They’re all in the industry, and they slowly form a sweet friendship, the girls can have fun together and provide mutual support, sitting out late drinking, talking, just hanging out. These scenes feel genuine, carefree and natural. Nevertheless we (and Bella) quickly realise that Joy’s attitude and lack of maturity mean she will never get to progress far in the industry and that Bella will soon leave Joy behind. Pleasure depicts a world where it’s every woman for herself.
Remarkably, Pleasure is never judgemental about the porn industry, even though it condemns some individual protagonists’ behaviour. Mostly it doesn’t seem to take a moral stance, instead its extreme matter-of-fact depiction is a blank canvass for the viewer to project their own prejudices or opinions.
That’s not to suggest the film doesn’t offer perspective. Revealingly, there’s often a stark contrast between some of the more extreme BDSM shoots and the supportive atmosphere on set. The porn shoots are play-acting of a kind, any on-screen depravity is solely to satisfy the sordid desires of the consumers’ demands, turning the question of ethics around. Is it right to be critical of the extremes of the porn industry, when it’s essentially a reflection on the society that craves the product? And somewhat tellingly of American society, why are multi-racial porn scenes considered to be even more taboo and extreme than simulated rape?
The film also explores a theme of patriarchy and agency; men are in control at all levels of the industry. It’s true that the women are portrayed with varying degrees of independence (each ‘girl’ is effectively freelance unless they are signed up exclusively to a top agency). However, their success or failure is always in the hands of men.
At times Thyberg shows us how this can quickly become coercive. A particularly uncomfortable scene shows Bella visably upset during a shoot. At first the all-male crew (there’s only one scene with a female porn director) seem supportive and sympathetic, but as soon as there’s a hint she might back away from the shoot they quickly become coldly manipulative, and it’s clear that they’ll say whatever it takes to compel her to complete the scene. It makes for distressing viewing.
Despite this, Pleasure is ultimately a film about a woman who just about manages to stay in control. Although Bella’s early stated boundaries are soon abandoned, this is a film about a woman exploring the extremes of her own moral limits and the desensitising impact on her own character, as much as it is a commentary on the porn industry and its reflection of our broader society. Some viewers were disappointed by a relatively low-key ending, but (without spoiling it) I thought it was a fitting and very satisfying statement of female agency.
It’ll be interesting to see what Thyberg does next. This film has clearly been a long-term project, an extension of her own academic studies, and whether she is able (or interested) in exploring other subjects and projects remains to be seen.
Pleasure is a compelling and boldly impressive film. It’s not an easy watch – at the Sundance London screening the cinema provided a safe space and counsellors, and there were several walk-outs – but it offers an informed, nuanced and at times devastating depiction of an unfamiliar industry. It bravely avoids taking an ethical stance, leaving it for the viewer to project any moral judgement.
Pleasure premiered at Sundance 2021 and had its UK premiere at Sundance London in August 2021.Follow @davefilmblog