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'Pleasure': A young woman's matter-of-fact pursuit of porn stardom

By Aisha Harris
Sofia Kappel is Bella Cherry in Pleasure. (NEON)

While the screen is still black and as the opening credits begin rolling, the unmistakable sound of sex fills the space for several seconds: men grunting and panting, a woman gagging and panting, slaps, expletives, groans of implied ecstasy.

This is how Pleasure begins, and if you, the viewer, weren't already aware of the basic premise of the film, this jolt to the senses serves as a vivid warning of what to expect. There will be explicit depictions of sex, and a not small amount of it.

This is not, however, by any means an "erotic" Hollywood movie, the sort audiences have been mourning the loss of as of late. Instead, Pleasure, the feature debut of Swedish writer/director Ninja Thyberg, is an arresting workplace drama-meets-bildungsroman that demystifies the adult film industry without flat-out demonizing it – a delicate balance to strike.

Upon arrival at the airport in Los Angeles, a young Swedish woman named Bella Cherry (newcomer Sofia Kappel) is asked by the customs agent why she's here: Business or pleasure? Her answer is hinted at in the title, though the divide between the two is blurred and challenged almost immediately. In a subversive twist on the fantasy of the American Dream, Bella has a single-minded aspiration toward porn stardom; this isn't the tale of a fresh-faced innocent who unwittingly stumbles into porn while pursuing Hollywood dreams of becoming a professional actress or model; nor is this the story of a damaged drifter who goes down the "wrong" path because she sees no other options for survival. As she tells it anytime someone in the business asks, Why come all the way out here to do ... *this*?: She's a natural exhibitionist who finds joy in performing sex work. "I love being in front of the camera, I love having people watching me."

Still, as Bella is soon to learn, the adult film industry is a business. And in matters of mixing business with pleasure, the business often takes priority.

Thyberg's first iteration of Pleasure was a short film of the same name that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. To make the feature, the filmmaker spent several years observing the contours of the industry first-hand, visiting porn sets and living for a time in a house shared by adult film performers, just as Bella does in the movie.

This immersion is evident in the casting, where the ensemble is made up almost entirely of people who actually work in porn, like Revika Reustle as Bella's housemate and friend Joy, and Chris Cock (so named because, yes, he kind of looks and sounds like Chris Rock) as Bear, an older performer who acts as a sort of informal big brother/mentor type to Bella. (Kappel is an exception – this is her first film ever.) It would be a stretch to call their performances a revelation, but there's a naturalistic and unstudied ease with which they carry the scenes that's reminiscent of any number of performers in a Sean Baker movie, and it works.

Pleasure, the feature debut of Swedish writer/director Ninja Thyberg, is an arresting workplace drama-meets-bildungsroman that demystifies the adult film industry without flat-out demonizing it – a delicate balance to strike.
(/ NEON / NEON)

Thyberg's commitment to achieving a certain level of authenticity also shines through her lens, which reveals an intense curiosity for examining the details of what goes into creating professional porn. During depictions of porn shoots, the filmmaker alternates between Bella's point of view, staring down the probing eye of the camera, and that of the director's camera itself, putting the audience in the visceral position of both voyeur and performer. Thyberg also taps into the mundanity of it all – the pre-interviews and paper work required before a shoot; the production set-ups, staging, and choreography of the scenes; the networking, schmoozing, and fraternizing that goes on away from the set.

The film captures the fickle nature of freelance life, where each gig comes with its own unique perks, challenges, and drawbacks, all set and enforced (or not) by whichever person happens to be your boss that day. The stakes of this arrangement are heightened in the world of adult film, where consent is ostensibly regulated but not always practiced on set. As Bella works gigs, Pleasure shows versions of the good, bad, and everything in between – including a director who takes every precaution to ensure everyone feels safe on set, and directors whose "benevolent" approaches to coercion raise so many red flags they could easily stand in as examples in a workplace training video of how not to behave.

A fair warning: One scene in particular depicts a worst-case scenario that might be triggering for some viewers. But Thyberg isn't all that interested in dwelling on this upsetting experience anymore than she does the others. The show must go on, and Bella remains committed to her pursuits, which boil down to becoming a Spiegler Girl, the crème de la crème of the business who are revered for having essentially zero limits as to what they're willing to do on camera. (Talent agent Mark Spiegler plays a version of himself here.)

For all its audacity, Bella remains largely a mystery. Virtually nothing is revealed of her origins aside from the fact her mom believes she's come to America for an internship, and there's no sense of what she's into or what she's like when she's not trying to be "the next big porn star."

But Kappel's performance manages to side-step most of those criticisms – husky-voiced and convincingly driven, she plays Bella as at once inexperienced and exceptionally eager to get what she wants by any means necessary, a potent combination. (There are elements of an Eve Harrington-meets-Showgirls situation, though that's hardly the main focus and the movie never veers too sharply into melodrama or camp.) Perhaps most importantly, Kappel doesn't seem to judge the character, who at times makes puzzling, worrisome, or just plain awful choices in her ascension within the industry.

Pleasure, then, is not easily categorized as a cautionary tale; matter-of-fact feels more apt. And that's largely its greatest strength, especially at a time when many performers and advocates are pushing to reframe the conversations around sex work and women's agency to be less about moralizing and more about treating it like any other job that should have protections and support in place for employees. The film is firmly in conversation with those debates, and it's brazen, but thoughtful, in how it goes about it.


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Dive Deeper:
‘I wanted to challenge people’s prejudices’: is Pleasure the most revealing film about porn ever?
In an explicit and uncompromising new drama, a Swedish woman tries to work her way to the top of LA’s…
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…
Short story: Sex Thoughts between 1am and 2am 26/08/21
"Despite her flaws, she was good in bed": six women on sex
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
‘Doctor Strange’ actress and husband guilty of child sex charges
An actress and her husband have been found guilty of a string of child sex charges after jointly grooming and…
‘Conversations with Friends’ review: Carnal desires and the complications that arise afterward
There’s a conversation that bubbles up every so often about the absence of sex scenes in contemporary film: Why is…
Get all your news in one place