Much like the ambitious protagonist at the center of his story, pleasure is not afraid to get dirty. Swedish writer-director Ninja Thyberg’s new film delves deep into the world of the American porn industry and is told from the point of view of Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), a Swedish girl who moves to Los Angeles to become the next big porn star .
Bella doesn’t waste time in this pursuit, and neither does she pleasure. After opening with a brief but explicit audio clip from an over-the-top sex scene, pleasure follows Kappel’s Bella as she arrives in the United States fresh from her flight from Sweden. The film’s opening frames show Bella filling out paperwork and giving her fingerprints before being asked by an unseen customs officer if she came to the United States for business or pleasure. After a short pause, Bella replies, “Pleasure.”
It’s an instance of meta-humor kicking pleasure with a wink, but it’s not the moment in the film’s prologue that most clearly hints at what’s to come in Thyberg’s feature debut. Instead, it’s the moments when Bella has to sign paperwork and mark her fingers in ink that feels most in line with Thyberg’s intentions pleasurea film that’s less about evoking its titular feel and more about uncovering the mechanics of an industry that produces content designed to tickle and delight.
Despite the promise of the film’s title, Thyberg isn’t interested in invoking the same feelings pleasure that his characters are. She makes that clear early on when Bella shows up at a vacant house in LA to film her very first porn scene. Throughout the sequence, Thyberg systematically lays bare (no pun intended) all the uncomfortable truths and tricks that linger beneath the surface of each porn scene.
The film, which is unrated in the US, contains numerous explicit images and sequences. That’s not surprising given the film’s subject matter, but it’s a testament to Thyberg’s control as a director that never feels like she takes it pleasure‘s moments of nudity or sex too far. That performance is in part a result of the film’s bright and glossy aesthetic, which permeates pleasure with a sterility that keeps it from feeling even remotely sensual. The film’s look only reinforces Thyberg’s desire to explore the business side of the porn industry, rather than its sexual side.
Her exploration leads Thyberg to reveal many insider details most people probably don’t know about the porn industry, as well as the rampant misogyny that runs through it and can unfairly complicate the lives of female performers. This aspect of the industry is skillfully articulated by Thyberg in one of the film’s best passages, which begins when Kappel’s Bella takes part in a BDSM scene directed by a woman (Aiden Starr).
The experience proves positive for the aspiring pornstar. The rules of the scene are set early on and the crew goes out of their way to ensure Bella is comfortable with whatever happens along the way. Prompted by this experience, Bella challenges her manager (Jason Toler) to find a similar scene for her. The scene she gets is directed by a man and starring two other male actors, all of whom care little about their feelings during the shoot. The sequence is extremely difficult to watch and the experience almost convinces Bella to leave both LA and her burgeoning porn career behind.
In the end she doesn’t. Instead, Bella decides to take matters into her own hands and pursues a manager (Mark Spiegler) who has the power to make her the star she believes she deserves. This decision marks a turning point for pleasurewith the film gradually investing less in examining the porn industry in general and becoming more interested in exploring how Bella’s ambitious nature leads her to abandon many of her own rules in hopes of getting what she wants.
It is in this section that Kappel’s skills as a performer are most evident. pleasure marks Kappel’s feature film debut, but it doesn’t take long for the wide-eyed portrayal to fade. The same goes for Bella’s naivety, which is eventually replaced by her all-consuming desire to succeed. As a character, Kappel does a good job of bringing Bella’s calculating, cold side to life, especially in pleasurethe last act.
Thyberg’s decision in pleasure‘s back half, turning it into a moral game about the cost of reckless ambition, is also what makes the film’s final segment its weakest. Bella’s overall arc ends up feeling disappointingly familiar, making the entire film feel more generic than it should. That’s partly because we’ve watched her journey a thousand times, but it’s more the result of Bella feeling less like a three-dimensional figure and more a vessel for Thyberg’s own interests.
That does not mean pleasure is an unsuccessful feature film debut for Thyberg. On the contrary, the film is sharply cut from start to finish, and its ability to shift between multiple different tones within a single scene is a credit to Thyberg’s own bone-deep understanding of her material. Her exposure to the porn industry is comprehensive and unbiased in a way that is undeniably impressive, and throughout the film she reveals many of the industry’s biggest issues without ever passing judgment on (most) people who choose to to participate in it.
consequently, pleasureIn the end, the title feels less like a promise and more like a statement of the myriad ways in which an industry designed to simulate pleasure so often fails to ensure it for many of its female stars.
pleasure hits theaters on Friday May 13th.
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