Here is a film in which double anal is a major plot point. Yes, double anal, that rite of ‘passage’ for many young porn starlets. It is also a film that opens with Linnea (Sofia Kappel), our protagonist, shaving her pubic hair with frantic strokes of a cheap razor. This is the explicit sensibility of Pleasure, Ninja Thyberg’s genuinely transgressive debut feature. Some will find it terribly vulgar, like the chap who made a swift exit from our screening at Sundance London. But Pleasure depicts its world exactly as it should, warts and all. And it does so as part of a smartly observed realist drama about values, ambition and friendship.
In other words, Pleasure is Wall Street in stilettos, and in Bud Fox’s role is the aforementioned Linnea, a 19-year-old Swede who has moved stateside to become Bella Cherry, her porn star nom de guerre. Kappel is a natural, leading a very provocative film with confidence and naturalism. Her blankness can be inscrutable, but that’s part of her Scandinavian reserve.
Linnea stays in a ‘model house’, joining other newcomers such as Joy (Revika Anne Reustle), a friendly but vulnerable girl whose USP is a dirty, no boundaries shtick. The ‘model house’ appears to be an important custom for aspiring stars, as a producer tells Linnea that she should never live with ‘normal’ girls because they won’t take kindly to her. After all, despite the industry’s massive revenues and omnipresent reach, porn remains a fringe subculture that’s too subversive for polite society. Linnea’s siloed existence brings to mind that Goodfellas scene in which Karen Hill observes how her social life is contained to a circle of mob wives.
Linnea and her housemates act as each other’s ‘ride or dies’, yet their chemistry is changed by the dynamics of the industry parties they attend together. Linnea is noticed, the others aren’t. A combination of her icy allure and assured networking lands her gigs while her friends look on, quietly envious. Pleasure is somewhat episodic from this point, with Linnea’s story occurring over a series of porn shoots that give a broad view of the industry, showing the difference between a good shoot and a bad one. Her best shoot involves ropes and hard slaps to the face, but she receives a full brief from a team of men and women, who outline safe words and expectations. Soon after comes her worst shoot, a badly prepared ‘rough’ scene hosted by three bro chads who launch into her with little preparation.
Some critics have noted what they see as Pleasure’s depiction of misogyny and abuse, but that is not quite right. Make no mistake, there are some bad people here. Especially the‘A-list’ porn star played by Lance Hart, whose feud with Joy takes a nasty turn during a spontaneous shoot together. The bro director of the rough scene is passive aggressive, too. But these men do not reflect the systemic culture, which is highly judgmental like any other performing industry but professionally run and organised with agents, producers and performers who are mindful of consent and wellbeing. There are kinks in the system just like its relative over in Hollywood – personal animosities here and cynical self-interests there – but find an industry where those aren’t present.
Some may also condemn the ‘force’ and ‘violence’ of pornography, lamenting how it is shaped by warped male fantasises. Yet all of the choking and slapping meets the kinks of women, too. In fact, a PornHub survey found that women were 106% more likely to search for the term ‘rough sex’. This is bolstered by a Psychology Today finding that some four in ten women dream of rape fantasies.
Pleasure is a brazen middle finger to those who think all porn stars are exploited victims. Cherry and her friends revel in their sexuality – they consider ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ to be compliments. This film isn’t a caricatured story of men abusing authority. Ninja Thyberg has learned far too much about the industry to reduce her debut feature to that. Rather, Pleasure is story about making it in a very competitive industry where both men and women will judge you and wear their status with arrogant disdain. This feeds into the blunt and open ending, which is a variation on the old idiom ‘it’s lonely at the top’. It raises questions rather than giving answers, and that’s usually a good thing.
Pleasure will be released in the UK by MUBI. Stay tuned for a release date.