Swedish director Ninja Thyberg’s debut feature Pleasure pushes the boundaries between objective storytelling and voyeurism, and it does so with a heavy dose of realism, including a majority of the cast coming from the adult film industry itself, which makes the film both absorbing and very hard to watch.
It’s impossible not to feel a sense of dread throughout Pleasure, and that is exactly the point. Nineteen-year-old Swede Linnéa, stage name Bella Cherry (played, perhaps surprisingly, by a first-time actress, Sofia Kappel), has arrived in Los Angeles with a plan: she wants to be the next big porn star. She has an agent who puts her up with other actresses in a small and shabby house, and she starts working immediately. Before her first film, she gets stage fright and almost backs out. But by the end, not only has she successfully shot her first porn, she’s proudly taking and posting selfies of her face covered in semen.
The vacillating makes Bella difficult to read. This is clear right from an opening scene, presumably at LAX customs, when she declares with the slightest grin that she’s in town for pleasure (not business). We don’t know why she’s doing what she’s doing. She says she likes to perform, and the film seems to want to comment on life as performance in the age of social media. She’s clearly ambitious – more so than some of her roommates, including Florida native Katie (stage name Joy), who becomes her best friend but seems to have already maxed out her career potential and chooses friendship over career anytime.
When she sets her sights on the industry’s top manager, Bella willingly puts herself into increasingly painful, dangerous, and apparently soul-sucking situations to land him. Some of these scenes are brutal to watch as Bella gets tied up, whipped, strangled, spit on, slapped, pushed around, and “raped for hours” (her words). The scenes appear physically and emotionally traumatic. She vomits after one; in another, she’s reminded of her “safe words” and told how best to recuperate from soreness the day after.
The graphic sex scenes are filmed with ambient sound, interspersed with disconcerting spiritual hymns, and harsh light. Body parts are shot close up, mostly penises but we do see Bella shaving her pubis and bottom in the shower in an early scene. Other aspects seem plucked from director Thyberg’s months of meticulous on-site research, like the many tools of the trade, handheld filming styles, and exhaustive consent papers and videos.
When Bella breaks down and asks to stop filming a scene where two men are physically and verbally abusing her, the tormentors turn into soft-spoken gentlemen, comforting her and telling her what a great job she’s doing. In the end, though, they guilt her into finishing the cut. Not to mention she’s alone in a trailer in the middle of an industrial no-man’s-land with three muscular guys getting increasingly impatient with her.
This is an underbelly of Los Angeles. We see Bella driving around for hours (often filmed Lolita-style with just her white sunglasses and red lips showing in the rear-view mirror) to shoot scenes in warehouses, trailers and tract houses. The porn industry is depicted as almost entirely run and consumed by men, but made sellable by beautiful young women put into humiliating and potentially painful situations. Bella wants to “take control” of her career, and Joy suggests they should start their own female-owned business, but it’s clear these dreams are unlikely to happen. Another woman casually tells the story of her agent essentially pimping her out to a man.
The most successful of the porn stars appear the most emotionally traumatized. When Bella tries apologizing to one after a rough scene together, the woman doesn’t seem to understand why she’s owed an apology despite having been practically tortured on air. Meanwhile, Bella appears to have a loving family at home, including a mom who thinks she’s in LA for an internship and just needs to stick it out to make it work. It’s one more piece, like the abrupt final scene, that makes Bella – and the adult film industry as a whole – an enigma.
Read the full review at the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.
Images courtesy of NEON.