- Director: Ninja Thyberg
- Writers: Ninja Thyberg, Peter Modestij
- Starring: Sofia Kappel, Zelda Morrison, Evelyn Claire, Chris Cook, Dana DeArmond, Mark Spiegler
Perspective is an important, understated tool when creating a film. In Ninja Thyberg’s directorial debut, she wields it like a knife. Specifically, Thyberg shows the ins and outs (no pun intended) of the porn industry from a newcomer trying to reach the top of the world. But Pleasure is more than a retread of Boogie Nights (more on that in a minute) with a female protagonist. The film is an unflinching look at the modern porn industry and the deeply rooted misogyny inherent in how it’s run. Of course, the film wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the committed performance of its lead, Sofia Kappel.
The film begins with Bella Cherry (Kappel) emigrating to the US from Sweden and arriving in Los Angeles with dreams of porn stardom. She dives right in and does a simple “boy-girl” scene, and it’s here where Thyberg establishes the film’s voice. The scene takes place in a sketchy back office styled with a “casting couch” – a big enough red flag for most – and the porno is shot POV-style, a smart choice to bring us into the world that Thyberg wishes to portray.
It’s also here where Thyberg teases us with the graphic nature of the film to come; this is a film that doesn’t shy away from the nitty gritty details inherent in working in porn, and all its permutations. Bella then befriends an assistant and occasional male actor from that shoot, who goes on to warn her of her new housemates – fellow aspiring porn stars with the same agent – and how they’re not to be trusted. Not only does this turn out to be untrue, but Bella forms a sort of camaraderie with them, sharing their struggles and bonding over all the ways the porn industry mistreats its most valuable assets. Thankfully the script, written by Thyberg and Peter Modestij, focuses less on becoming a rah-rah female empowerment statement and more on grounded character work.
Bella soon learns that the most sought-after actresses are “Spiegler girls”, handled by Mark Spiegler (playing himself), and they’re all willing to do just about anything. Not wanting to be dissuaded from her ultimate goal, in spite of her earlier insistence that she wants to start out slow and ease her way into more hardcore shoots, Bella dives right in and embarks on a series of frightening scenes that showcases just how much she’s in over her head. The first is a “boy-boy-girl” scene, in which two beefed-up men are meant to rough-house Bella into having sex with them. Though the scene may appear to be over-the-top, you can simply browse any mainstream porn outlet, and this degrading style of video, in which the man (or men) asserts his dominance over the woman, is prevalent in one way or another. But what’s most heartbreaking is how, when Bella pleads to stop and the cameras stop rolling, the actors and director cajole her into continuing, laying on the guilt and passive-aggressively threatening her career. It’s textbook dialogue from a domestic abuser in a professional setting.
Porn has come a long way since the romanticized heydays depicted in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and, while those at the top have always been ruthless jerks, the shamelessness with which they operate today is perhaps even more disheartening. It should be noted that, throughout all of her ordeals, Kappel excels at showing Bella’s vulnerability. It’s difficult enough to physically perform everything that Thyberg wants to portray, but Kappel crafts an engaging and charismatic performance.
The magic of Pleasure though, is that it’s not a total condemnation of the porn business, damning as some of its depictions may be. Bella eventually finds her way into two physically demanding shoots, and the crew’s kindness towards her and the other performers is like night and day. The film finds enough humanity to understand why so many men and women find a career in sex work appealing.
The film also serves as a character study of someone trying to retain her humanity in an inhumane business. How many people will Bella step over and leave behind on her journey to the top? But even with a tight running time of 108 minutes, some scenes do begin to feel repetitive in their goals – though no less emotionally shocking. Still, Pleasure remains an unflinching look at an industry that deserves more scrutiny. But with fame and fortune and a carefree lifestyle dangling in front of impressionable young men and women like a carrot on a stick, what incentive do those in charge have to reform?
Pleasure will be released in theaters nationally on May 13, 2022 .
- None. The best chances this film has lie at the Independent Spirit Awards, where Thyberg and Kappel could make a serious case for winning.