DIRECTOR: Ninja Thyberg

CAST: Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle, Evelyn Claire, Chris Cock, Dana DeArmond, Kendra Spade, Jason Toler, John Strong, Lance Hart, Aiden Starr, Axel Braun, Bill Bailey, Michael Omelko, Chanel Preston, Casey Calvert, Xander Corvus, Steve Holmes, Alice Grey, Abella Danger, Gina Valentina, Mark Spiegler

RUNNING TIME: 109 mins

CERTIFICATE: 18

BASICALLY…: Bella Cherry (Kappel) sets out to become the next big porn star…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

There’s a couple of reasons why I’m deciding to take another look at writer-director Ninja Thyberg’s porn drama Pleasure: one, it’s been nearly a year since I’ve seen it (the movie screened at Sundance London last summer), so it will be interesting to see how, or even if, some of my personal opinions on the film have changed; and two, it is interesting to explore some of the reactions that the film has received from actual professionals within the adult film industry, since there is only so much that I can contribute from an outside perspective.

Luckily, Pleasure is still just as daring, provocative and shocking as it was last time, setting the bar high for both Thyberg and her fearless lead actress Sofia Kappel, and remains a vital film that explores some very fascinating angles that should resonate with anyone regardless of what industry they belong to. At least, it is to me; the feedback from certain others has been, well, mixed to say the least, and while that doesn’t necessarily affect my own judgement it is still important to mention such responses to see how this movie reflects an industry that has already, and rather unfairly, been side-lined by society.

First, a quick recap of the general plot: a young woman named Linnéa (Kappel) arrives in LA to enter the porn industry, under the stage name Bella Cherry. After a few nervous starts, Bella finds herself more and more at ease with performing sexual acts in front of a camera, and makes some close friends along the way, including another performer named Joy (Revika Anne Reustle). Soon, though, she begins making ambitious plans to become the industry’s next top starlet, which involves booking more and more risqué shoots to draw the attention of influential talent agent Mark Spiegler (one of many industry veterans playing themselves in this movie, alongside others who play fictional characters), where she starts to learn her own limits in uncomfortable and even rather terrifying fashion.

Thyberg’s film, as mentioned in my earlier review, is not exactly intended as a one-sided anti-porn takedown of the industry; far from it, in fact, as the filmmaker does show how this can be a line of work for women who simply enjoy doing what they do, and get more out of it than just the financial benefits. If anything, Thyberg rallies against the patriarchal rule within the industry that has led to such unjust stigmatisation elsewhere, in a narrative that explores things from a purely female perspective, through which we see just how male-dominated and masculine things can be behind-the-scenes. Most of the sets where Bella performs have a largely male crew, the agents responsible for the safety and compensation of the models’ work are all dudes, and even some of the male performers dictate most of the action; hardly a fair power structure for an industry built entirely around the female body.

The filmmaker goes even further as she tackles such heavy topics as that of consent, a vital necessity for anything in life but especially within a line of work that requires full-on participation or none at all. This is most prominent during the film’s most disturbing scene, wherein Bella is subjected to a “rough” shoot that becomes more graphic and profoundly horrifying by the minute, which almost turns into I Spit On Your Grave levels of uncomfortable-to-watch sexual violence (not that it’s ever comfortable to watch, by the way). Thyberg, however, is smart enough to not let this be the defining portrayal of the industry itself, but rather the disturbing control that male authority has over women’s bodies in this supposedly liberating context, and the combination of Thyberg’s sharp and analytical direction, and Sofia Kappel’s completely captivating lead performance (she is, incidentally, also the only non-industry performer on screen, which you wouldn’t be able to tell given how impressive other actors like Revika Anne Reustle – alternatively known as Zelda Morrison – and the fabulously-named Chris Cock also are here), makes the themes resonate so much more than if any lesser talent was in charge here.

Enough about my own thoughts, though: the real question is, what has the response to Pleasure been within the actual porn industry? According to an article on Indiewire, the response seems to have generated a mixed response from certain performers and filmmakers, some of whom actually appear in the film itself. While some like former star Evelyn Claire (who here plays a rival performer named Ava) have mostly praised the film for its accuracy, other figures featured in Pleasure like prominent director Axel Braun and performer Lucy Hart (whose portrayal of an arrogant male talent was completed before her gender transition) have come out against it, calling it everything from a shock piece to even a male-saviour movie. It’s worth noting, however, that most of these particular criticisms come from the male (or formerly male) talent, and since Thyberg’s film intends to show things within this patriarchal industry from a more female perspective, it’s easy to see why there has been such a stronger reaction from the men than the women. Ironically, the divided response does, in a way, expose the patriarchal ideology of the porn world that Thyberg hints towards, since there is a whiff of ignorance in how the male response has reacted to seeing things from a woman’s point of view, despite the female talent serving as the main face of this industry.

It’s interesting to factor these responses in, because they paint a stronger and more complex picture than I, a non-industry figure, could ever give about this film. Again, the mixed response does not taint the major appreciation I have for Pleasure, nor the huge amount of respect I have for both its writer-director and star, but taking into account a wider collection of opinions makes it a much more fascinating gem to unearth.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Pleasure is a bold and provocative look at the porn industry and its patriarchal hierarchy through a mesmerising female lens, one that is strongly conveyed by impressive debuts from writer-director Ninja Thyberg and fearless lead actress Sofia Kappel, which has rightfully caused a bit of a stir within the industry itself.

Pleasure will be released in cinemas nationwide on Wednesday 15th June 2022 – click here to find showtimes near you!

It will also be streaming exclusively on MUBI from Friday 17th June 2022 – click here to get your free trial today with Amazon Prime Video!

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