Sundance Review: Pleasure
For the average moviegoer, cinematic explorations of the porn industry likely begin and end with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, a film that — while shot through with dark and melancholic undercurrents — is ultimately about the importance of the family you choose. Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure is a different beast altogether: unabashedly graphic, unflinchingly direct, and thornily complex in its interrogation of its subject. It’s an uncomfortable film, yet the talents of Thyberg and breakout star Sofia Kappel make it nearly impossible to look away — it’s a movie that deserves to be seen, and hopefully A24’s marketing team is up to the challenge.
Pleasure wastes no time in making sure we know the setup: Bella Cherry (Kappel) has traveled from Sweden to Los Angeles with a singular ambition to become porn’s next superstar. She’s barely landed in southern California before she moves into a “model house” with a handful of other aspiring adult film actresses and heads off for a shoot. We quickly learn that Thyberg isn’t going to get cute with strategic cuts to avoid showing too much genitalia; if anything she seems to want us desensitized to the nudity and sex so that when things become truly unpleasant we see them for what they are and don’t merely lump everything together under a blanket of generalized obscenity.
And don’t get me wrong, Pleasure contains plenty of unpleasantness. Thyberg makes sure to show the professionalism and the mundanity of the industry, legitimizing the work as valid while also diving beneath the surface to explore the dangers of any industry where gender dynamics remain inherently imbalanced. From Bella’s first shoot we see how the industry’s men attempt to undermine the women, warning Bella that she can’t trust the other actresses while offering themselves up as the ones who can show her the ropes — a claim juxtaposed with the crucial friendships that develop between the women at the model house. The film continuously highlights feigned niceties from men as part of the guise of consent: they pressure with faux kindness but with the expectation that the semblance of empathy will turn a “no” into a “yes,” and when an actress exercises her basic right of refusal the turn from sympathetic to vindictive is as quick as it is unsurprising.
However, Thyberg’s ultimate goal clearly isn’t to demonize the industry. The film absolutely recognizes the harsh realities of Bella’s world, detailing the propensity for violence and the complete dismissal of accusations of sexual violence despite the lip service paid to protecting the actors. But Pleasure refuses to strip Bella of her agency: too many films of this ilk would boil down to empty moralizing about the evils of porn or the inherent victimhood of sex workers, but Thyberg is smarter than that and her film is, in turn, much more nuanced and ambiguous. It helps, of course, that Pleasure has a performance like Kappel’s at the center — fearless and unreserved, Kappel brings an incredible amount of natural talent to what comes across as an incredibly demanding role for any actor, let alone one making their feature debut. Together, Thyberg and Kappel combine to bring a stylized authenticity to an industry rooted in performative intimacy, and in the process cement themselves as major players in their own field.