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Sundance 2021 ‘Pleasure’ Review: A Boldly Brutal Portrayal of the Porn Industry

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*Warning: This review discusses sex and sexual violence. Proceed with caution.*

When asked what her intentions are in coming to Los Angeles, Bella Cherry answers the airport immigration officer with “Pleasure.” Although Ninja Thyberg’s debut feature film is filled with hype music, colorful set design, and the naive intentions of a young Swedish girl, Pleasure is a difficult and far from pleasurable viewing experience. Thyberg dives head-on into the porn industry without restraint, aiming to honestly examine the structures and relationships that exist in the industry, which she does with style and sincerity. 

Bella Cherry, played incredibly by newcomer Sofia Kappel, comes to Los Angeles from Sweden with the dream of becoming a famous porn star. It is clear from the start that she is willing to do almost anything to get to the top of the business, but she is starting at the very bottom. Living at a model house with other women in the industry, Bella begins to learn the ins and outs of the business, from getting an agent to what it takes to really make it in the world of adult entertainment. Exploring the field through the lens of this young woman allows for Thyberg to fully investigate the porn industry and the different facets of it, both positive and negative.  

Apart from Kappel, nearly every performer in Pleasure actually works in porn. Thyberg’s intention with this film is clearly to investigate the inner workings of this business without a judgemental eye. It is obvious she put a lot of effort into research and collaboration with actual people who are in this line of work, resulting in a cohesive portrayal of the profession. Seen entirely through Bella’s eyes, however, the film is being told through a female perspective. This approach results in graphic depictions of sex and at times, sexual violence. Thyberg doesn’t hold back when it comes to the honesty of these scenes, however, everything is depicted with care and avoids exploitation. The explicit content indeed makes for an intense viewing experience, but that isn’t what this film is riding on. Graphic scenes make up a lot of the film, but each has a purpose in what Thyberg is trying to interrogate.

Bella experiences different approaches to shooting the porn scenes each time she goes to do a job. As she tries to climb higher in her career, she is required to do more extreme sexual acts that she clearly isn’t always comfortable with. Depicting a scene in which Bella is bound and performing BDSM acts in contrast to a scene that is meant to be “rough,” the film shows how porn can be a pleasant shooting experience, or move towards straight-up sexual violence. After Bella has a strongly disturbing shoot, which she feels she must go through with because of the coercive nature of the men involved and the need to push her career forward, she seeks help from her agent. The agent only ends up blaming her for taking such a risk, offering no protection to her when he is supposed to be the one to keep her safe. 

These scenes operate not only as a criticism of the nature of some parts of porn, but also highlight how patriarchal structures exist in every workplace. To be clear, the film does not act like violent things happen all the time in the industry. In fact, many other scenes show how fun and positive these experiences can be for everyone involved. Still, it must be addressed that the industry is controlled by men, and vulnerable women can be put in danger if they are not thoroughly protected. 

Despite the difficult scenes, the heart of the entire film was the community formed between the women performers. While being an incredibly competitive profession, one where women are encouraged to compete with one another, Bella still finds solidarity with the women around her. There is a recurring motif of women’s bathrooms, and how these are places of solace for these women. We see them applying their makeup early in the morning and removing it after their long days of work. It is a space of safety for them and also represents how women spaces in general can be welcoming, referencing the rise in women produced pornography. 

Pleasure operates as a comprehensive examination of the porn industry, but does so without ever judging the people who work in the profession. The provocative nature in pursuit of honesty should be applauded, but what is perhaps most impressive is Sofia Kappel’s performance. She carries the film on her shoulders, and through her we understand the motivations and complexities of women in this field. Ninja Thyberg asks many questions about patriarchal structures and positive sex work in this story. Impressively, she is able to integrate all of this together into an audacious, powerful film. 

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