Sundance 2021 Film Review: Pleasure ★★★★

As twenty year-old Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) arrives in Los Angeles from her native Sweden she’s asked by a US customs agent whether the purpose of her visit is ‘business or pleasure’, with her momentarily delayed reply giving director Ninja Thyberg’s stunning debut feature, co-written with Peter Modestij, its title. Pleasure, which expands on Thyberg’s award-winning 2013 short, is part of Sundance’s World Dramatic Competition and played the festival’s Midnight section last night. It was worth staying up late for.

With shades of Showgirls‘ Nomi Malone and All About Eve‘s eponymous ingénue, Bella has moved to LA to pursue her particular American dream of being a porn star. Initially a little naïve, as Bella learns the inner-workings of the adult entertainment world with its agents, shared performer apartments, and the demands of the job, so too do we. She’s soon determined to become a Spiegler Girl, the epitome of success in straight adult movies, with daily high paying jobs shot at mansions in the Hollywood Hills, and VIP status at industry parties. In a cast filled with people connected to the business, real life porn star agent Mark Spiegler plays himself, while one of his client’s, Evelyn Claire, plays Ava whom Bella becomes intrigued by at her first photoshoot. In fact, Sofia Kappel, who impresses in her acting debut, is the only cast member without some porn industry related experience and major credit should go to Thyberg’s direction for making all the performances feel so natural. Utterly engaging throughout, Kappel brings a self-assuredness tinged with vulnerability to Bella and an essence of unknowability without relinquishing any warmth or her feeling distant as she attempts to navigate her way to the top. In order to get there, Bella must agree to a comprehensive checklist of onscreen sexual activities that would likely make Fifty Shades of Grey author E. L. James blush.

As Bella challenges the boundaries of her comfort zone, one “rough sex” sequence involving slapping, choking, and verbal abuse is particularly harrowing to watch, but although there’s a sense of danger in the air and threatening looking phalluses, Bella is never entirely stripped of her agency or presented as a victim despite the extreme requirements of the scene and the circumstances it’s being shot under. It’s a scenario that contrasts with the particularly sensitive treatment she’d previously received, made to feel safe and secure, while performing a bondage scene on a set run by women. Generally though it’s shown as a patriarchal business, with Thyberg exploring the competitiveness that that fosters among the industry’s female models, and although we do see a rivalry emerge between Bella and Ava, a close friendship does develop between Bella and her housemate and fellow porn performer, Joy (a fabulous Revika Anne Reustle), a relationship that will be tested.

Thyberg, who was an anti-porn activist in her teens, now has a more open-minded view of the business and having put in years of research clearly wants to represent LA’s adult filmmaking world in an authentic, if slightly heightened way. Without ignoring the potential downsides of the profession, the filmmaker takes a non-judgemental, sex work is work, approach that gives us an insight, through Bella’s experience, into the reality of being on a porn set and what goes into creating the fantasy, including prep details like shaving, douching, and butt-plugs. There’s a lack of judgement and manipulation in Karl Frid’s opera infused score too, which helps build and maintain the tension.

As far as Bella’s backstory goes, the economically written screenplay gives us a sense of her life in Sweden in a single phone call home to her mother, while her motivation to work in porn isn’t revealed (at one point she jokes that it’s a result of childhood trauma and later that she just likes dick), in any case Thyberg isn’t interested in such explanations, and so what if it is simply because she enjoys it? Even after Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion celebrated their WAPs with the world last summer, female sexual pleasure is still all too frequently left out of the conversation or seen as taboo. It’s refreshing then to be given a female centred window into porn with women at the forefront of telling this story including cinematographer Sophie Winqvist and editors Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Amalie Westerlin Tjellesen. As we spend time on set, social constructs of gender are examined with details like Bella having to remove her sexy high heels so she doesn’t tower over her male scene partner, while her co-star asks her to keep secret the fact that he injects his penis to keep it hard. Speaking of penises, in a world of DM’d dick pics, full frontal male nudity on the big screen remains rare and is heavily regulated in the US by the MPAA, which like certain social media platforms, seems to police male nudity far more rigorously than female nudity. Pleasure redresses this imbalance with various shots of erect penises, though the nudity in the film that’s necessitated by its setting is never objectifying, gratuitous or played for shock value. The sex is generally more suggestive than graphic and the film feels more explicit than it is. The film also touches on the industry’s continued fetishisation of Black bodies and the racism that’s inherent in the categorisation of interracial scenes as a niche.

With a compelling central character, Pleasure offers a nuanced look at the porn industry that doesn’t tell its audience what to think, while using its setting to examine larger societal issues of gender, race, and power structures. Well-paced, it builds to a riveting climax.

By James Kleinmann

Pleasure had its world premiere at Sundance 2021 in the Midnight section and is part of the festival’s World Dramatic Competition. There will be a second online screening on Tuesday February 2nd at 10am MT. Head to the Sundance website for more details.

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