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'Pleasure': A young woman's matter-of-fact pursuit of porn stardom
Ninja Thyberg's film about an aspiring porn star challenges conventional wisdom around sex work and women's agency.
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‘I wanted to challenge people’s prejudices’: is Pleasure the most revealing film about porn ever?

By Adrian Horton
Sofia Kappel in Pleasure: ‘I became so aware of how we look down on women, and how much that is part of reproducing a male gaze.’
Sofia Kappel in Pleasure: ‘I became so aware of how we look down on women, and how much that is part of reproducing a male gaze.’ Photograph: Neon

Swedish film-maker Ninja Thyberg certainly did not take the easy route with her first feature. Pleasure, which arrives in US theaters this weekend, takes on a subject rife for denigration or moralism: ambitious 19-year-old Bella Cherry, played by Swedish newcomer Sofia Kappel, trying to break into the American porn industry in the late 2010s. Based on years of research in the Hollywood-adjacent world of Los Angeles adult film, Thyberg’s debut portrays female friendship, pragmatic striving and power dynamics in an industry as liable for abuse – and professionalism – as any other. Pleasure often lingers on the quotidian aspects of the business – contracts, pre-shoot douches, set lighting, gossip with co-workers. The unrated film, which premiered at the 2021 Sundance festival, opens on Bella’s bare crotch, as she contorts herself in the shower to shave her vulva before her first shoot.

Another act of ambition: this is Kappel’s first-ever acting role. The 24-year-old first met Thyberg through a mutual friend, who recommended her based on an early character description for Bella. “My initial thought was: absolutely not,” Kappel told the Guardian. But she was looking for challenging, uncomfortable experiences – there is, unsurprisingly, a lot of nudity in Pleasure, though lack of clothing is so perfunctory as to become unremarkable – and was sold on Thyberg’s vision of a film about porn as a professional business and microcosm of society. “I think the porn industry as a subject is very interesting since it’s very present in our lives but we don’t talk about it. We act like it doesn’t exist,” she said.

And yet it is nearly ubiquitous; various international studies have put porn consumption rates at 50% to 99% percent among men, and 30% to 86% among women, according to the American Psychological Association. Porn, as Pleasure implicitly argues, is less a seedy corner of society than a mirror. “Everything that would be present in our society will also be shown in the porn industry,” said Kappel of the film. “We are a racist society, and the porn industry is also racist. We’re a sexist society, and the porn industry is also sexist. We live in a patriarchy, and the porn industry is also that.”

Pleasure is a nearly decade-long journey for Thyberg, a former anti-porn activist who developed the feature from her 2013 short film of the same name. The short took a much more critical view of the industry, based on research conducted via the internet. For the feature, Thyberg knew she needed first-hand experience – “I wanted to challenge people’s prejudices, so I felt I had to this properly and get to know [adult film performers] and then build a story, not decide beforehand what the story would be,” she said. So Thyberg traveled to Los Angeles and, starting in 2014, spent five years researching for the film – getting to know adult film performers, befriending producers, observing sets, networking through Mark Spiegler, one of the industry’s top agents, who plays himself in the film (as do numerous real-life performers).

The research checked many of her existing biases. Thyberg said she arrived in LA nervous to talk to female performers, and with somewhat of a “victim perspective” – “I thought that they were taking part in this very patriarchal system and playing along with these super stereotypical gender roles because they don’t have the theoretical perspective that I have,” she explained. “I was on a high horse … I had a very good intention, but I was coming from a [patronizing point of view].

“I started to understand how it’s the complete opposite,” she added. “They know so much more about patriarchy than I do, and they are super aware of everything.” The realization changed Thyberg’s understanding of feminism and her approach to the film. “I became so aware of how we look down on women, and how much that is part of reproducing a male gaze,” she said.

Sofia Kappel and Ninja Thyberg
Sofia Kappel and Ninja Thyberg, the lead actor and director respectively. Photograph: Loïc Venance/AFP/Getty Images

Kappel described the months spent researching her character as a similar evolution. “When I got to the US, I had a lot of prejudice toward the sex industry and especially toward women in the sex industry,” she said. Shadowing adult film sets and building relationships with performers changed her mind. “I realized that it was so obvious that it was work,” she said. “It’s turned boring very, very quickly.

“What I realized very quickly was that the question ‘Why?’ is so problematic,” she said. “Because I would never ask someone who works at a supermarket or a pharmacy, ‘Why would you work there?’ But as soon as there’s sex involved or especially toward women, when they’re using their bodies – they’re objectifying themselves rather than giving that power to men – you want to ask why. Why would you do that?

“I think a better question to ask would be: what do you get out of it?” she added. That question elicits highly individualized answers. People work in the sex industry to pay medical bills, to make extra money, for artistic expression, or for fun. Not that the industry is perfect. Adult performers have reported widespread mental health concerns, and are particularly susceptible to dismissal – many will conflate performing sex acts on cameras as asking to be hurt. “They don’t feel like they can speak up, because they’re not going to be believed,” said Thyberg.

Pleasure is, ultimately, a film about work, one that suffuses a business often described in stark terms with grey areas and fine lines – between empowerment and exploitation, erotic and obscene, ambition and corruption. Bella – blonde, blasé, an expert at the dissociative pout – befriends the other women living in a house owned by their mutual agent. She competes with other girls, tries to build an online following, eyes the “Spiegler girls” (porn’s A-listers) with envy and takes on increasingly risky, hardcore material in a bid to shoot up the industry ladder. She participates in a fetishized “interracial” porn (“it sounds racist because it is racist,” a black colleague tells her.) A BDSM shoot directed by a woman, in which Bella is rope-bound and whipped, evinces the industry’s best practices: safe words, check-ins, clear boundaries and expectations.

Kappel in Pleasure, a film, ultimately, about work.
Kappel in Pleasure, a film, ultimately, about work. Photograph: Neon

It’s a sharp contrast to the most harrowing scene of the movie, exemplifying the industry’s worst potential. In the scene, Bella arrives to a bare set – her, two male actors, one male director. The director notes the material will be “rough” – slapping, choking, spitting – but there is no rehearsal, warm-up, or discussion of safe words, check-ins or boundaries. The director just begins shooting. When Bella shuts down, he pressures her to continue (“Feels good to say yes, right?”) Thyberg’s camera effectively mimics Bella’s blurred perception, splintered by trauma – sounds fading in and out, a shoe, a face, the wall, the camera, a snippet of memory. On the drive home, she pulls over and vomits.

It’s a difficult scene to watch and, paired with the compassionate, professional BDSM shoot, one of the film’s most evocative sequences of the industry’s ethical spectrum. In reality, the scene was tightly rehearsed and padded with numerous safety guardrails. Kappel chose to do stunts, and practiced months prior with Bill Bailey, the lead male actor. A close friend from Sweden was on hand during the shoot, as was co-star Revika Anne Reustle. Both had the authority to call cut if she made eye contact with them. There were established boundaries – no feet near her face – and plenty of snacks during frequent breaks. “The situation was very safe and very therapeutic for me, because even though I had to get in a headspace that was hard and uncomfortable for me to get in, I got to do it in a very safe space,” she said.

Ultimately, Pleasure morphed into a story about “being a woman in a male-dominated world”, said Thyberg, as told through one woman’s navigation of one insular, frequently stigmatized industry. The film, and particularly a muted ending open for interpretation, avoids moralizing against porn at large. “You can’t quit patriarchy – you can only handle it and deal with it,” Thyberg said. “The things that [Bella’s] going through that are bad in the film don’t have anything to do with having sex on camera. It has to do with inequality, with power abuse, with structures that exist in any industry.”

  • Pleasure is in US cinemas from 13 May with a UK and Australian date to be announced

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Dive Deeper:
'Pleasure': A young woman's matter-of-fact pursuit of porn stardom
Ninja Thyberg's film about an aspiring porn star challenges conventional wisdom around sex work and women's agency.
A gutsy, humane film about porn stardom
Explicit yet never exploitative, Ninja Thyberg's film examines a young woman's ambition, consent and control
‘Enlightening, funny’: Why Aussie film about male house cleaners with benefits is making waves
The new movie How To Please A Woman, which has already screened across the film festival scene in Australia, is…
Research lifts the lid on women's solo bedroom habits
Campaigners are trying to remove the stigma and the social imbalance
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
‘A sea of men’: Andie MacDowell recalls having panic attack on all-male film set
Realisation she was only woman in the room on 2016 film led Four Weddings and a Funeral star to fall…
First landlord in UK jailed for 'sex for rent' offences
The 53-year-old landlord ironically turned to sofa-surfing after being outed for his sexual 'arrangements'
Get all your news in one place