Adapted from her 2013 short of the same name, Swedish director Ninja Thyberg’s debut feature is an unflinching look at the 21st century porn industry. Featuring a knockout star performance from newcomer Sofia Kappel, Pleasure’s depiction of the reality of working in porn is lucid, often harrowing and occasionally even tender.
Bella Cherry (Kappel) has newly arrived in L.A. from her home in Sweden, hoping to make it big. At 19 years of age, Bella has never been in a porn film, though she is convinced that she has what it takes to become a star. In her first screen performance, Kappel imbues Bella with depth and complexity, offsetting an outwardly glassy naïveté with a hidden ruthlessness that gradually reveals itself. Kappel is adept at depicting Bella’s intense vulnerability, one which informs – rather than contradicts – a hardness that develops as her story progresses.
Films about pornography run the risk of becoming pornographic themselves, especially where sex and nudity are depicted explicitly. Yet in an early shot – a close-up of Bella shaving – director Thyberg makes her mission statement clear: this is not an exercise in exploitation, but the reality of an industry that uses human bodies as its product. Indeed, Thyberg’s shooting of sex scenes without them looking or feeling exploitative is incredibly skilful; the nudity and sex on screen fall away to reveal the excitement, anxiety, and trauma of their subjects.
The core relationship of the film is between Bella and Joy (Zelda Morrison), another hopeful star slumming it at the bottom of the industry. On arriving in L.A., Bella is warned not to trust other girls: they’ll lie to you, pretend to be your friend, steal your jobs, she’s told. As it turns out, Joy is an absolute sweetheart, mentoring Bella through her early work. The irony is that Bella’s ambition will later drive her to betray Joy.
The mid-section of the film is the toughest, with a protracted rape scene at a shoot where the director pressures Bella to perform in rough sex. It’s a turning point for Bella as she becomes increasingly hardened to herself and others: committed to ever more extreme shoots to further her career, Bella’s initial glassy optimism crystallises into vacant apathy. After she sacks her agent Mike (Jason Toler), Bella blags her way on to real-life producer Mark Spiegler’s books, finding herself in a shoot with megastar Ava (Evelyn Claire), a snooty, deeply unpleasant character and a warning sign of Bella’s future. The pastel colours and soft furnishings of the shoot are in ironic contrast to the cruelty with which the performers treat other, made all the worse by Ava’s somatic personality off-screen: like an animal anaesthetised by prolonged brutality.
The film’s closing scene, at an industry party, could not make Bella’s trajectory clearer. Bodies contort and pose, audiences ogle and eyes everywhere dim and gaze into the middle distance. Pleasure is not a morally proscriptive film and seeks neither to venerate nor condemn pornography, but to depict its hollowing effect on those who make it. The film’s title is not accidental; at a time when porn is freely and ubiquitously available, the price of gratification may be cheap, but there is always a cost to be paid.