(Written by Allison Brown)
Pleasure, directed by Ninja Thyberg, is a raw and gritty look at the disturbing realities of the adult entertainment industry from the perspective of an emerging 19-year-old Swedish import—Linnéa (Sofia Kappel), who goes by stage name Bella Cherry. In an industry highly marked by manipulative and unappealing middle aged men taking advantage of barely legal and naïve hopefuls, the film makes it a primary note to expose this truth in its genuine form. As the opening credits begin, actors with such names as “Chris Cock” set the scene for the movie that is about to unfurl. By casting real porn stars, Thyberg offers a documentary angle to this work of fiction.
Without warning or preface, Pleasure drops the audience right in the midst of a raging erotic sequence from the onset. Prior to A24’s other title, Zola, I have never seen male genitalia on film in such an unfiltered lens. It is clear that this director aims to shock. It then shifts to Bella’s arrival at the airport from Sweden, where she is asked by border patrol: “are you here for business or pleasure?” She aptly answers “pleasure,” a double entendre highlighting the title of the movie and the goals of her career. The film wavers in between mundane, yet slightly more sexually charged scenes in everyday life and graphic exploitative visuals. These explicit sex scenes are cut with objectifying shots of an ever-watching camera, where Bella Cherry is forced to perform, no matter the chaos that surrounds her.
I found many of the scenes educational, while also extraordinarily depressing. On set, Bella is filmed to generate video evidence of her willingness to participate. This notion of a potential lawsuit is dark within itself, and I can only imagine how many companies do not do this. She is told to hold up her ID, along with today’s newspaper, to prove she is of age. Next, the man off camera asks, “do you know what you’re here for?” and confirms that Bella is not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. She must provide her 2257, which is apparently a part of the Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act of 1988. This acts as consent for a sexually explicit act. In other shoots, Bella must repeat her safe words—such as “red” to stop completely and “yellow or mercy”—to ask her male partner to slow down.
Finally, she is told that she can leave at any time, which proves to be untrue throughout the majority of Pleasure. Men in power constantly gaslight Bella into doing tasks in which she feels uncomfortable, solely to move up in fame or success. At the start, Bella is vocal about her comfort level and tells her agent that she only wishes to participate in vanilla “solo, boy-girl, and girl-girl” scenes. By the conclusion, this is thrown out the window as she sets her sights to become a Spiegler girl, and earn representation from elite (yet creepy) agent, Mark Spiegler.
I would have never considered is how close and intrusive cameramen must be to get the footage that porn is known for. Watching these individuals coaching Bella and the other talent while they are in the middle of such an intimate act is excruciating. I was sad to learn that interracial porn is more of a fetish than any odd level of kink; this notion is horribly racist. After many years of watching America’s Next Top Model, I also found the level of similarities to fashion modeling intriguing. I would not have expected go-sees (which in this case include fully stripping down) and model houses to be a part of an adult entertainer’s work.
Women are also put in incredibly compromising positions, while the men are free to do whatever they please. There are segments where Bella is wrapped in rope and dangling from the ceiling (she is warned she will be in pain after); her best friend Joy (Revika Anne Reustle) is forced to repeatedly lick a tormentor’s shoe; and Bella is aggressively slapped and choked in an unacceptable manner. This hardcore sequence was perhaps the most painful to watch. On camera, the male performers literally beat Bella until she has completely broken down and is in tears. Off camera, they hug and comfort her and tell her that she is strong, powerful, and she can do this! The juxtaposition in their actions is jarring to say the least. From my own perspective, any man that is capable of physical partner abuse and rape that can be turned off at the drop of a hat, whether or not it is “acting,” is deeply disturbed. The image of this spectacle will be permanently burned into my retinas.
The dénouement provides a great feminist angle to counter the domineering repulsive men Bella interacts with on her path to pornographic success. What could have been an excuse for erotica enthusiasts and pervy onlookers to claim they are watching “cinema,” is definitely a well-executed and acted film. Sofia Kappel stuns in her role, handling immensely challenging scenes with grace and believability.
It is difficult to reign in my thoughts on Thyberg’s film, as the greater majority of the scenes are incredibly difficult to watch and even more graphic than I anticipated from my peers’ initial Sundance reactions. Pleasure portrays stark rape, physical and verbal abuse, and uninhibited hardcore sex. I am genuinely curious to see how A24 will market this to the general public, as it is definitely NC-17 content, and I can’t recall seeing anything listed with this rating in recent years. This is definitely not a film one should watch with their parents.
Pleasure played at the 2021 Melbourne International Film Festival on Monday, August 16th.