Pleasure (Review) – This Hard-Hitting Look At Porn Will, Erm, Blow You Away

DIRECTOR: Ninja Thyberg

CAST: Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle, Evelyn Claire, Chris Cock, Dana DeArmond, Kendra Spade, Jason Toler, Mark Spiegler, Eva Melander, Alice Grey, John Strong, Ryan McLane, Axel Braun, Charlotte Cross, Xander Corvus, Chanel Preston, Casey Calvert, Aiden Starr, Abella Danger, Gina Valentina

RUNNING TIME: 109 mins

CERTIFICATE: 18

BASICALLY…: A young Swedish woman (Kappel) travels to Los Angeles to become a porn star…

 

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

This review of Pleasure was conducted as part of the Sundance Film Festival: London.

Whether we’d openly admit it or not, we all watch porn for pleasure – and that’s okay. There is such a horrific stigma surrounding it that the very idea of watching or even performing in adult content has inspired insipid judgement by others in society, which has caused many performers in the industry to be unfairly scrutinised on social media and in public places (having gotten to know a few people who have gone on to become performers themselves, I can attest this to be a depressing truth on their behalf).

With that in mind, there was a worrying thought in my head going into director Ninja Thyberg’s striking debut feature Pleasure, which focuses heavily on the modern-day LA porn scene and its numerous misgivings, that it would ultimately adopt a very anti-porn stance which might sully people’s perceptions of it even more. Those worries were soon evaporated when it became much clearer that, mercifully, the film is a far more balanced view on the industry than it lets on: it certainly doesn’t shy away from some of the toxicity and cutthroat tendencies of certain figures, but it also outright condemn the world of porn either, instead using it as a provocative background for a very intricate and deeply emotional character study that’s like Black Swan if most of the movie was just that infamous sex scene.

The film opens as striking 19-year-old Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) arrives from her native Sweden in Los Angeles, where she intends to begin a career in porn. After experiencing some stage fright during her first scene, she soon finds her groove and begins performing with gusto, soon acquiring an agent and befriending some other young performers that she’s sharing an apartment with. It isn’t long before Bella begins having more ambitious aspirations, and as she starts performing more and more risqué scenes – from BDSM to, in one of the most uncomfortable scenes in the movie, an extremely rough shoot where she is horrifically abused (all for the cameras) – she also begins carving her own path to become the industry’s next top player, no matter what the personal cost is.

A feature-length version of Thyberg’s award-winning 2013 short of the same name, Pleasure is a fascinating debut feature. It will understandably make a lot of people extremely uncomfortable – at the screening I attended, there were a number of walk-outs, and there was even a specialist on standby if anyone felt triggered by some of the extreme content being depicted – but there is a very strong amount of confidence and ambition in its presentation, with everything from the sets that Bella and other performers find themselves on to the industry parties that they are invited to, all the way down to some of the smallest behind-the-scenes titbits (no pun intended), feeling thoroughly researched and accurately portrayed. Intriguingly, Thyberg’s cast is half made-up of actual figures from the industry, either playing fictional versions of themselves or completely new characters; male actor Chris Cock appears frequently as an early confidante for young Bella’s introduction to the world of porn, while talent agent Mark Spiegler shows up as himself to be the power agent that Bella wants to perform under. This adds a further level of naturalism to the film because many of these people are, of course, already more than comfortable with being in front of a camera, and so when they’re discussing things in Thyberg’s script like the racist connotations surrounding interracial porn as a fetish category, you can tell that these people very much know what they’re talking about, instead of actors who are just pretending to know.

In addition to clearly doing her homework on the subject – and if there’s a highlight of making a movie about porn, it’s the research – Thyberg presents herself as an incredibly sophisticated visionary, bringing a very European flavour to a film that is otherwise fully US-set. Glamorous close-up shots are accompanied by angelic choirs, while the editing in certain scenes becomes almost unbearable as Bella becomes subject to borderline dangerous material; during the aforementioned scene where Bella is exposed to extreme torture when the cameras are both on and off (her male director effectively manipulates her into continuing with the scene against her will, which by most definitions is a type of rape), everything becomes blurred and much more rugged around the edges, putting us right in Bella’s unfortunate situation as these ruffians are just going to town on her. Along with Thyberg, lead actress Sofia Kappel also makes a bold introduction in what can only be described as an utterly fearless performance; she leaves very little to the imagination in terms of her appearance and overall physicality, completely inhabiting the role of an overly-ambitious woman making the most of a tight situation (again, no pun intended).

You have to applaud and respect the sheer willingness of this film to go places that few movies that also revolve around the porn industry might not be so willing to go; even Boogie Nights doesn’t get as graphic as some of the stuff in this film, and you could argue that is a more celebratory and upbeat movie than Pleasure is. It’ll definitely inspire conversations by people with opinions across the aisle, whether they’re firmly against the industry and everything it stands for, or they’re people like me who are endlessly fascinated by all of its (figurative and literal) ins and outs, and do have a great deal of admiration and respect for a lot of the performers that have developed healthy careers from it. Wherever your thoughts lie, though, it’s hard to deny this as being a rather fascinating debut feature that introduces brand-new talent that you are undoubtedly going to hear a lot more of in the future.

Like porn itself, you might not be so keen to openly talk about Pleasure, but deep down you know that you are extremely curious to watch it, if you haven’t already. Make sure you do, though, because it’s a wild experience.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Pleasure is a no-holes-barred look at the modern-day LA porn scene that neither outright condemns nor glorifies the industry, and proudly announced filmmaker Ninja Thyberg as a provocative and fascinating new talent.

Pleasure currently does not have a UK release date – stay tuned!

 

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