Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Neon releases the film in theaters on Friday, May 13.
A husky-voiced Swedish Kesha look-alike lands at LAX and walks up to the customs booth wearing a furry, multi-colored jacket that screams “look at me!” while also whispering “but not too hard.” We already suspect that she’s a porn star, or at least in Los Angeles to become one — there has to be some reason why the opening credits were soundtracked by the unmistakable sounds of performative deep-throats and flesh T-boning against bare thighs — and so we’re in on the gag when the customs agent asks if our girl is in town for business or pleasure. She waits for a beat, and then responds with the naive smile of someone who doesn’t realize she might be giving the wrong answer: “Pleasure.”
Though never again posed in quite such obvious terms, some form of that question is at the heart of every scene in Ninja Thyberg’s debut feature of the same name, a slick if overly streamlined tale of one woman’s quest to fuck her way through the patriarchy and maybe even out the other side. But “Pleasure” — which is almost by default the most knowing and honest commercial film that’s been made about the modern American porn industry — is determined to avoid framing pleasure and business in binary terms.
Instead, Thyberg arranges those seemingly opposite forces into an equation of sorts, one through which young “Bella Cherry” (Swedish newcomer Sofia Kappel, supposedly the only member of the movie’s impressive cast who didn’t have some prior connection to the adult film world) will process all of her adventures in the San Fernando Valley as she tries to solve her own value without selling out her self-worth. The closer that Bella gets to the top of the mountain, the clearer she comes to understand that “business or pleasure?” is the black-or-white language of a world that wants certain people to think they can’t have both, and treats mixing the two as the ultimate taboo.
From her first POV shoot to a rough threesome that her agent won’t let her label as rape, and eventually her central role in what has to be cinema’s sweetest double-anal scene, each of Bella’s experiences push her toward questions that every starlet in the industry will have to answer for themselves at some point: Whose business is their pleasure, and whose pleasure is their business?
Which isn’t to suggest that Thyberg’s hyper-saturated whirlwind of hard dicks and bad dubstep is too high-minded to engage with porn at the more primitive level on which it tends to operate. For all of its appropriately naked thoughts about female agency in an industry that depends on the commodification of female bodies, “Pleasure” feels more like an NC-17 riff on “The Devil Wears Prada” than it does an unlubricated lecture about the inherent misogyny that keeps the masturbation business cranking along.
And while Thyberg’s clinical gaze regards her characters’ sexuality with all the enthusiasm of a vegan working at a slaughterhouse (our first glimpse of Keppel’s nude body is an extreme close-up of Bella slicing her skin open as she shaves her pubic area), the movie’s warmly sketched characters and broad country-girl-in-the-big-city plotting keep things as broad and plastic as the industry it caricatures.
Bella moves into a model house with three other porn stars who share the same b-level manager; they eat pizza, talk shit, go to parties, and stay stuck in the middle. Her peevish roommate — a self-diminishing Florida spitfire named Joy, played by the raucous and ultra-real Revika Anne Reustle — quickly becomes Bella’s fiercest advocate. There’s a prissy tight-lipped rival, a porn queen-maker who Bella strives to impress (talent agent Mark Spiegler as himself), a moment of meteoric success that finds our heroine reflecting on what it is she really wants… if you don’t recognize this story, that’s just because you haven’t seen it naked before.
But sex changes things. The XXX action here is all softcore simulation that earns a measure of verasimilitude through its hardcore context and meta casting (most viewers will probably recognize more of the faces than they care to admit). Twenty years ago, this movie would’ve been as scandalous as Catherine Breillat’s “Romance,” and doomed to the same distribution woes, but in these ultra-pornified times it doesn’t feel transgressive so much as it does a forensic analysis of something we see all the time — less “Debbie Does Dallas” than “CSI — the Valley.” In the rare instance where things look convincingly real, it’s not for our titillation so much as it’s at Bella’s expense. If “Pleasure” is sometimes glossy for its own sake, Thyberg also uses that candied porn veneer to look at how easily it blurs the line between consent and coercion.
Bella enters the porn world like so many fresh pieces of meat before her, and “Pleasure” introduces its heroine on the industry’s terms even if Keppel’s withdrawn performance allows the character to keep something to herself (the actress’ civilian status is helpfully othering in that respect, though the film itself would have been richer if its lead were less of a construct). We eventually learn a few basic details about why she left Sweden and what she’s hoping to achieve in L.A., but not until after we’ve covered a laundry list of specifics: She was born in 1999, she has 25 tattoos, she likes being submissive on camera (even though she quietly takes the initiative in real life), and lacks the performative eagerness that typifies many of the other girls in her new line of work. That might cost her.
The most instructive piece of advice Bella gets is to “enjoy what she does” so that people at home will believe her enthusiasm, but what the man coaching her either doesn’t understand or understands all too well is that he’s also conditioning her to enjoy what she doesn’t. An industry that rewards its female performers for voicing their pleasure is an industry that punishes its female performers for voicing anything else.
So when Bella gets cold feet before shooting her very first adult scene, the faux-support she receives from the male crew around her offers a dark preview of the dynamic she’ll encounter on so many of the sets around town. “You have to push past it,” the director nudges, only to follow that with a self-pardoning “but no pressure.” She pushes past it. They tell her what to say, and even when to “orgasm” (occasional cutaways to Bella’s POV, often looking at the male talent’s feet or some such, cleverly invert porn’s visual grammar and underline her lack of agency). When the scene is over, Bella snaps a few excited selfies with the evidence still dripping down her face — anything to not get spit out of the industry and sent back to Sweden like a failure.
Later shoots will complicate and intensify that “push through it, but no pressure” mentality, one to such an extreme degree that you wish Bella would go full “Promising Young Woman” on the “nice guys” in the room. “It’s just a show,” they say, as she shivers and cries. “It feels good to say yes, right?” And the fucked up thing is that they’re right — it does feel good to say yes, especially when trying to swim upstream in a capitalistic system that makes it so painful to say no. In an industry where business and pleasure are impossible to extricate from each other — and in a film where no one is ever shown having sex for fun — power becomes the most important thing, and the way that Bella ultimately finds way to yield some is blunt and penetrating in equal measure.
Expanding on her Cannes-winning short of the same name, Thyberg’s debut feature completes a long journey that began with anti-porn activism, and ends with a far more nuanced take on the adult film industry. “Pleasure” is neither pro-porn nor anti-porn, though it displays respect for the people who go into this kind of sex work, and distate for the ones who don’t respect each other within that world. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Thyberg is hoisting a lot of the male performers and directors on their own pitards, as she casts them as versions of themselves and asks them to re-enact their own casual misogynies, almost as if exacting a soft revenge on people who are as eager for Sundance-level attention as Bella Cherry is for porn success.
At the same time, Bella’s experience with female directors sets are so fulfilling and collaborative — even when she’s bound and gagged as part of a BDSM shoot — that “Pleasure” can’t help but feel like a convincing ad for ethical and/or women-run porn companies like ZeroSpaces and Bellesa House. As one character puts it: “Women should have more power over what happens to them at work.” Less interested in giving pleasure than in taking it back, Thyberg’s film might end on an ambiguous note, but few movies have ever been so eager to bare the simple truth of those words.
“Pleasure” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition.