It’s not every day that a film as painfully honest as Pleasure is released, and serving as a debut feature film only adds to its impact. Written and directed by Ninja Thyberg as an extension of her 2013 short film of the same name, Thyberg details a journey into stardom. More specifically and bluntly, Pleasure highlights an industry that can be unforgiving, exploitative, and cruel. Made up almost entirely of a cast that has been involved with the adult film industry, with the exception of a breakthrough role from Sofia Kappel, it’s a feat in and of itself that a film so raw was able to be released in this form. As Bella Cherry will do whatever it takes to become the next big star, Kappel shows an unparalleled commitment to making this role feel as authentic and upsetting as it needs to be in order to elicit a visceral reaction out of its audience. And as great as this film is, there is little pleasure to be pulled out of a viewing a film such as this one, yet is nevertheless both entertaining and riveting.
From the intro of the film consisting of pornographic B-roll audio, Thyberg makes it clear that her film won’t be a cookie cutter look at a highly exposed industry that is also able to exist in the shadows; Pleasure details the undisguised and unfortunate nature of the adult film business. Luckily, Bella does find a handful of people she feels can be trusted; The film goes out of its way to emphasize not everyone in the industry is exploitative, which will hopefully lead to a step in the right direction regarding conversations surrounding sex work and adult films. The genuinely wholesome moments which shed some necessary light on a bleak world that is forever looming is essential in the ups and downs of the journey towards fame. Upon her first shoot fresh off the plane from Sweden, Bella faces the dilemma of stage fright. Kappel plays this performance with all the fears and uncertainty that would arise being placed in a situation such as hers. It’s an intentionally unsettling performance at times, and one that only intensifies the settings as she offers up more and more of herself to an industry that is seemingly never satisfied. Being subjected to the barren sets these videos are shot on, with women being surrounded by men who appear to feign sympathy makes this a tough watch. One scene in particular plays out like a full-fledged horror film, even down to the editing. Kappel is rightfully garnering rave reviews for what she goes through in front of the camera, and when paired with the fascinating control Thyberg has behind it, it’s a match made in heaven.
Time and time again, Thyberg is shifting the gaze which the camera takes on. Pleasure makes use of both the male and the female gaze, but also that of an omnipotent one. Points in the film serve as if we are witnessing a literal behind the scenes documentary about adult films, and with the scathing attitude some characters have towards it, it feels all the more realistic by the finale. Never shying away from the overtly racist facts engrained in adult films or the anti-unionizing elements that those agents in charge fear, every scene, both within the film and those that Bella stars in, ask a singular question: “How much are you willing to give up”? And this question goes far beyond what is being physically demanded, but burrows down to the very morals and soul of Bella. And as we see how she handles each new situation, Pleasure takes on a fascinating parallel between each half.
All in all, Pleasure is a fascinating film that doesn’t seem to withhold the truth at any moment. Bella is obviously a character anybody can empathize with, but to see how the industry warps her into humiliating not just herself, but also her peers, is a tragic tale that one can only hope is fixed by the finale. From an editing perspective, it’s clear that more depth lies beneath the surface waiting to be explored. For those agents and executives in the business of doling out pleasure, Thyberg makes it clear that enough is never enough to them. The film points out there are caring individuals within the adult film industry that will do everything in their power from within to bring comfort. Still, even with those moments of true unity, the evil aspects Thyberg depicts are devastatingly presented and sure to be a talking point academically and culturally for years to come. One can only hope that the conversations will elicit some sort of change in the right direction.
NEON will release Pleasure in theaters on May 13th, 2022.