REVIEW: Pleasure [2021]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 109 minutes
    Release Date: October 8th, 2021 (Sweden) / May 13th, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: SF Film / Neon
    Director(s): Ninja Thyberg
    Writer(s): Ninja Thyberg / Peter Modestij (co-writer)

It feels good to say yes. Right?

Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) couldn’t have asked for a more inviting introduction to a porn set upon arriving in Los Angeles from Sweden. The filmmakers are courteous and sympathetic to her inexperience both when it comes to the “usual” pre-game hygienic rituals and a case of stage fright—genuinely seeming like they’re prepared to let her walk away if need be. Maybe it’s an act and they’re just coercing her into staying by being kind, but it works. Bella gets over her jitters, completes the scene, and is brimming with confidence afterwards. She makes a friend of Bear (Chris Cock), gets a tiny glimpse behind the “business” curtain of a billion-dollar global industry, and steels herself into doing whatever it takes for success. But it’s only the beginning.

Pleasure director Ninja Thyberg and co-writer Peter Modestij are merely easing us into this world in a way that allows us to understand who Bella is before directors, agents, and pornstars can sink their claws into her. She’s an idealist as far as where this career might go and a pragmatist when it comes to knowing her housemates (all under the company umbrella of Jason Toler‘s Mike) are competition first and confidants second. Her subsequent photoshoot, however, reveals how it’s not so black and white. You can be cold and calculating like rising star Ava (Evelyn Claire) by putting ambition above humanity. Or you can empathetically take a newcomer, who’s obviously out of her element, under wing like Joy (Zelda Morrison) does, regardless of being brand new too.

It’s a wake-up call of sorts where autonomy and consent are concerned within a toxically male-controlled establishment that isn’t. What starts about money and compensation, however, quickly turns towards safety in very dark and sinister ways. While no one should be able to take a photo of you “in character” without having permission (whether verbally or financially driven), agreeing to be photographed doesn’t automatically condone exploitation either. Bella wants to do things the right way and working with people willing to let her may provide a false sense of security when it comes to building up her expectations. Getting noticed isn’t just about looks or physical endowment for women. Subservience matters much more: to the film, the filmmakers, and the glorified pimps who call themselves agents.

Thyberg shies away from nothing as she drags Bella through the gauntlet of porn nightmares. And rather than create Pleasure as a generic cautionary tale, she allows the character to fall prey to the hypnotic allure and ultimately become another arm of its oppressively unethical machine. Because the power imbalance at work isn’t unique to this art form. It’s the same patriarchal stranglehold that gets white woman to vote and advocate against their own rights while propping up the men who truly benefit after lying that it’s for their own good. Staying compliant means more opportunity. More opportunity means more money. And suddenly the language and actions you labeled “rape” have become tactics you use to continue climbing that immoral ladder. The misogyny is baked in.

The film gives us whiplash as we move from good experiences to bad and back again until the line completely blurs—first because of apathy and then a byproduct of acceptance. Bear warns Bella straight away that she cannot trust any other women fighting for the same jobs as her because they will inevitably prove ruthless in that pursuit. But what he fails to mention is that she is just as susceptible to those impulses. Joy hits the nail on the head when saying they should start their own company that turns the table and demands male pornstars have sex with overweight women because she recognizes the imbalance. She knows they can take control through solidarity if nobody breaks rank. Bella probably doesn’t realize she already broke them.

I wouldn’t say Thyberg is necessarily saying anything we haven’t heard before when it comes to consent, but I’m not so sure it’s ever been presented in such a candid and explicit way. She’s dealing with concrete juxtapositions between those who treat what’s happening as a profession and those who wield it to solidify their dominance. It’s not a coincidence that Bella embraces being submissive on-camera when a woman director is calling the shots with clearly defined safety protocols. In a perfect world, that would be the norm. So, she tells her agent to book more “rough shoots” only to enter the opposite situation with three men and zero rules. There is a difference no matter what anyone tells her. She didn’t agree to submission behind-the-scenes too.

It’s a slippery slope and she rightfully wonders if pursuing this career was a mistake. And just like those men sought to gaslight her into going against her impulses, Bella becomes desperate enough to gaslight herself by way of advice from a mother who doesn’t know the whole truth of what she’s giving advice about. Is Bella not as strong as she thought she was? Should she embrace discomfort and numb herself to the desires of those footing the bills? Switching agents might provide an increased level of security and oversight, but such amenities come at the cost of her voice. The moment she agrees is the moment she must find another avenue to reclaim that relinquished power. The only target left is other women.

That’s a hefty price-tag that turns the tables in the most destructive way possible and leads to scenes that should have Pleasure landing itself on lists of “one-timers”—films so brutal and disturbing that you can only watch them once. This is the horror that fuels the entertainment millions view without a second thought. This is the unregulated abuse and torture by semantics that makes men rich off the bodies of the women for whom there’d be no industry without. And while Thyberg’s unrelenting vision puts its truth into the public forum, it’s Kappel’s performance that gives it purpose. Her innocence is hardened by betrayal until betrayal becomes all she knows. It gives Bella an incomparable advantage while eating away at her soul. Not every dream is a fairy tale.

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