Sundance 2021 Review: PLEASURE, A Triumphant Tour de Force Behind the Scenes of the Porn Industry
Even though porn has acquired pop culture status, it did not cease to be the subject of a myriad of controversies. Many of the prevailing issues received a documentary treatment in Hot Girls Wanted, After the Porn Ends or Pornocracy, which touched upon the psychological, sociological, and economic aspects, especially in the era of digital capitalism.
The feature debut Pleasure by Swedish writer-director Ninja Thyberg (co-written by Peter Modestij) takes a singular POV look at what it means and takes to ascent in the ranks of professional adult performers. However, Thyberg´s bona fide depiction of the industry is framed by the laborious strife of a debuting actress to gain agency in a male-dominated and abused environment.
Jessica flies from Sweden to Los Angeles to make it as the next big pornstar. Inexperienced in the world of adult entertainment but ready to work hard for the paycheck and reputation, she undergoes the casting couch initiation ritual as her on-screen persona Bella Cherry. After arduous administrative and legal proceedings, Bella experiences a stage fright that could thwart her rise to stardom.
Seasoned colleagues, as there are only men on the set, understand the situation and freely reassure Bella that this happens to all newcomers and she doesn't have to be afraid. Soon enough, the camera rolls. Once her debuting act is wrapped, the crew festoons her with compliments that she put on a performance like a pro. The confidence boost sets Bella on a new career trajectory.
In a carefully researched subject matter, Thyberg achieves striking authenticity as she crafts a story of somebody who might be perceived as insignificant and expendable in the eyes of the porn business pros and decision-makers. And in a way, Pleasure plays into this cold-hearted fact of the porn industry, and it is a conscious choice in the grand scheme of the film's story that Bella appears to be the next exploited girl.
Yet she is there to defy norms, not to affirm conventions. Thyberg seems to adhere to widely-known cautionary tales by performers chewed and spit out by the business only to skillfully outmaneuver those assumptions to deliver a compelling and gripping story. Bella is not going to be the next big cautionary tale.
Pleasure assumes the female POV on the industry and is a female film on porn. Contrary to the established notion, the film eschews becoming a porn-bashing jeremiad by a long shot, even though Thyberg began as a teenage anti-porn activist. Shattering one cliché at a time about sex work, Bella Cherry is a sex-positive girl who embraces her passion and plans to monetize it for a living.
She doesn't enter the porn business because of abuse trauma. Despite her attitude and zeal, she faces challenges and obstacles in her emerging career. Thyberg stages thoughtfully nuanced scenes that painfully illustrate what it means to make it as a talent in the porn industry. In a wider picture, she clearly demonstrates that no porn shoot is the same and best practices exist for safe and dignified sex work even in the fetish niche.
While building a portfolio and gaining experiences, Bella ventures into niches of extreme and BDMS porn, respectively, and the experience cannot be more different. The former is a nightmarish ordeal of abuse, humiliation, and coercion in an almost underground unregulated shoot where men call the shots. The latter turns out to be an amicablel happening in a respectful atmosphere despite leather and ropes. The only difference being that in the case of BDMS, a woman is at the helm.
Pleasure lands closer to Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler than to Sean Baker's Starlet, regardless of sharing more similarities with Baker's chaste account of the porn biz. Thyberg's film does for porn what Aronofsky's film did for wrestling, and that is an honest and demystifying peek behind the scenes, revealing pros and cons.
Yet the two films differ in aesthetics and the message, as they see the protagonists at opposing ends of their careers. Most importantly, Thyberg empowers her protagonist to challenge the oppressive conditions of established power structures and regain agency for herself in the business that grew to play by different rules.
The DoP Sophie Winqvist captures the scenes with candor, though the visual style gravitates toward the glamor of mainstream porn. Contrary to the documentary naturalism Maryse Alberti achieves in The Wrestler, Winqvist shoots less crudely in aesthetics of the high-end, postcard-from-L.A. lifestyle.
Obviously, Bella's aspiration lies in Tier 1 of the porn industry, not the low-grade semi-amateur circle. Full-frontal males abound, as swinging appendages parade in front of the camera, while Bella's body gets little screen time. Thyberg readjusts the ratio and thwarts the male gaze.
Pleasure is a graphic film. Each explicit scene has a clear purpose, including the (soon-to-be) infamous extreme porn shoot that may cause some eyes to avert. It's not solely what is performed but how it is delivered on the screen, in which case the editors Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Amalie Westerlin Tjellesen do a great job in the rhythm and structure of how the scene is put together to elicit an even stronger emotional reaction.
The approach applies to Bella's every porn shoot, as each episode tells a different story and traces the development of the protagonist. However, despite the explicit imagery, Thyberg is well aware of where the line is and she never crosses the breaking point to exploitation.
Swedish newcomer Sofia Kappel, as the leading actress in the role of Bella Cherry, excels in a breakout performance. Witnessing what Bella Cherry has to endure in her rise to stardom in adult entertainment, Kappel´s achievement is even more remarkable given the fact that this is her first acting role.
In a very physical performance, Kappel/Cherry wields her innocent look for her on-camera personality while navigating behind-the-scene demands of the industry with great fervor and determination, making all the necessary sacrifices. Thyberg noted that she cast Kappel for her punk vibe. And that punk vibe gets harnessed to topple hindrances in the chauvinistic milieu. Notwithstanding the plethora of diverse sex acts that Bella Cherry performs to grow her portfolio, Sofia Kappel was the only cast member with no ties to the porn industry.
Pleasure turned out to be a standout title in the 2021 Sundance line-up (with Cannes 2020 label attached to it). Besides all it achieves in demythisizing the porn industry and empowering women where it is least expected, Pleasure is also an uplifting, motivational story, wearing the old adage that hard work pays off, although the director makes it clear what hard work and tough choices on a road to success truly entail.
Thyberg and Kappel demonstrate in vivid detail that personal responsibility, tenacity against the odds, and the will to make sacrifices are mandatory components in the process. Contrary to film convention, no feel-good upbeat montage that would distill all the hardship into a 20-second music clip appears in the film, as Thyberg pulls no punches and keeps the experience intensive and truthful all the way.
In addition, a caring pep talk from Jessica's mom provides comic relief and an emotional moment. After an exceptionally excruciating shoot, Jessica is contemplating leaving Bella Cherry behind in L.A. and returning back to Sweden. That's when her mother gives her an old-school motivational speech about gritting your teeth and pulling through outside the comfort zone, because that's what is life about.
Evidently, she does this under the impression that her daughter is having problems in her job in a café, but pushes her unwillingly for even more boundary-pushing, out-of-the-comfort-zone on-camera sex stunts. And Bella learns that success, whatever it represents, can come at the cost of more than one fissure at a time.
- Ninja Thyberg
- Peter Modestij
- Ninja Thyberg (screenplay by)
- Sofia Kappel
- Revika Anne Reustle
- Kendra Spade
- Dana DeArmond