Saturday, May 8, 2021

Pleasure review / Bold, explicit and ambitious LA porn drama

First look review
Sundance 2021

Pleasure review – bold, explicit and ambitious LA porn drama

In Swedish film-maker Ninja Thyberg’s strong debut, a young woman discovers a difficult, male-dominated industry as she strives for agency

Adrian Horton
Tuesday 2 February 2021

The observational eye of Pleasure, an ambitious Sundance debut by the Swedish film-maker Ninja Thyberg, is so transactional, at once unsparing and recessive, that one might mistake the first 10 minutes of this drama on the American adult film business for a documentary. “Business or pleasure?” the customs agent asks 19-year-old Swedish visitor Bella Cherry as she enters the country with a dream to become a porn star. She answers, vacantly, “Pleasure,” but the film’s opening moments are all business: a full frontal, zoomed-in shot of Bella’s delicate balancing act in the shower as she shaves her vulva for a shoot; Bella affirming her birthdate (1999), agreed-upon pay ($900 for playing innocent virgin in girl-guy porn), and consent to perform a sexually explicit act for a contract; the bright lighting of professional shoots; crew-members’ playful teasing when Bella, a first-time performer, is confused by the use of a douche.

Sofia Kappel

This sensibility toward labor, logistics – a healthy appreciation for earned knowledge and expertise, Thyberg’s keen eye for the small acts and details of “the business” – makes Pleasure a far more interesting, gripping and refreshing film than its subject matter might suggest. It’s an often subtle (even in its many XXX-rated shots) and surreptitious study of an industry built on explicit, aggressive imagery, an arresting film which, though it doesn’t stick the landing, thankfully delineates between the legitimate work of adult film performers and the toxicity, misogyny and abuse the male-dominated industry allows to fester and lacerate.

Sofia Kappel

Pleasure takes a tour through the late 2010s porn industry – certified, competitive agencies and Instagram followings, camera-filled parties and fan conventions – through the rise of Bella, placidly beautiful with ice blue eyes and an icier stare, the type of girl who brazenly jokes about her dad raping her as a motivation for turning to porn but keeps to herself, ambition played close to her chest. A fascinating mix of youthful over-confidence and naivety, Bella quickly ascends from first-time performer with beginner boundaries (she doesn’t do anal yet, she tells a casting agent, because she’s just getting started) to risky ladder-climber, along the way bumping into the contours of a loosely regulated, Hollywood-adjacent industry that’s as capacious for abuse – and best business practices – as the next.

Bella and her housemates, particularly the Florida-born, down-for-anything fellow rookie Joy who becomes her guide and best friend, trade gossip on who’s an asshole, which male agents they’ve slept with for a job, how to hit your most flattering angles in photoshoots. They advise Bella on the status of the “Spiegler girls”, select actors under the Ari Emanuel of adult film agents, Mark Spiegler (playing himself) who occupy the upper echelon of porn stars. Determined to make his roster, Bella pursues a strategy of ruthless pragmatism, taking on rougher material, starting with a BDSM shoot – the only one of the several depicted to be directed by a woman – in which Bella is bound in rope and whipped. Yet the roughness of the porn material is offset with the professionalism and compassion of the shoot; the crew regularly supply Bella with water and check in on her, review various safety words and carefully choreograph the scene.

That’s in stark contrast to a subsequent shoot, this time by a male director, in which Bella is greeted and summarily subjected to “rough” material by two male actors, with no warning of the choreography (slapping, spitting, choking), no mention of safety words, and no expectation of anything except Bella accepting whatever she’s given (“Feels good to say yes, right?” the director tells her as he coerces her to continue the scene her panic interrupts). The violating scene is, under Thyberg’s direction, sickening, as the camera shifts from a consensual, mutual orifice – the locus of Bella’s gaze – to cover for abuse as performance. Pleasure, overall, takes a deft touch to the panoply of emotions and experiences industry women are wont to encounter at work. Trauma, unfortunately, is a prominent one, from harassment on set to the fetishization of so-called “interracial” porn (“it sounds racist because it is racist,” one of the black male performers tells Bella), which Bella participates in as a way to prove her mettle (it was a double penetration scene) and secure better representation, to the cloudy dissociative state Bella slips into during rougher shoots as both trauma response, coping method and sign of boundary snapping all in one.

But the main throughline is the work, neither condescended to nor dismissed here, as Thyberg eschewed more obvious plots a lesser director, or a male one, would probably pursue – Bella’s mom discovering her new vocation, for example, or a stock scene of some non-industry guy reacting poorly to her line of work, or relying on a straightforward, off-hours sexual assault instead for motivational trauma.

Kappel takes on a remarkably difficult role for her first feature, one that requires a double performance and the fine calibration of naive trepidation with undaunted ambition, and though there are moments of blankness where you’re not quite sure what Bella’s thinking – maybe, one wonders, she doesn’t yet know herself – the rookie is up to the task. So, too, are the numerous adult film actors who appear as themselves or take on lightly fictionalized version of their careers here, imbuing Pleasure with a striking, refreshing sense of realism; its locker-room talk, so to speak, of dressing up and playing the industry game are by far the film’s best moments.

Which makes the quietness of Pleasure’s ending land all the more disappointingly. There are strong themes in the open-ended, threads-hanging final scenes – that integrity arises from how one treats friends and co-workers, that success and ambition can erode (as it would in any industry), and most importantly how the toxic male view of exploitation and entitlement will corrode anything it touches, be it teammate bonds, a healthy sense of competition, or respect for oneself. It is a slippery sense of agency Thyberg can’t quite maintain a grip on, and the film slides into a provocative, if more muted than it should be, ending.


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