Director: Ninja Thyberg
Stars: Sofia Kappel, Revika Reustle, Chris Cock
A teenage anti-porn activist, Ninja Thyberg’s clean, confident debut feature Pleasure intends to demystify one of LA’s foremost economies. Less a didactic essay against porn than a fair exposure of humdrum dramas and business transactions, it balances positive and negative attributes of an industry built on and supportive of misogynistic thinking. The kink here is the progressive suggestion that more female control would yield better results. Better porn.
Swedish 19-year-old Linnéa (Sofia Kappel) arrives in California, tattooed and ready to work, with a precocious stage name – Bella Cherry – already imprinted on her body. Overcoming the pressure (“no pressure”) and nerves of her first shoot (an indicatively impersonal and unerotic experience), Linnéa ends the scene asking for her phone, so that she can document her cum-stained face to augment and share on Instagram later. She may be cherry, but she’s been raised in a hypersexualised culture that has taught her how to market herself.
Linnéa has a strategy in mind for a long-term career in porn – starting off with comparably vanilla acts so she can build and progress – but she quickly finds that the (male) producers that call the shots have little to no interest in placating the dreams of just another commodity. It’s telling that Linnéa first on-set experience features no other women at all, and that this determined young woman is a little lost in a passive aggressive situation. Any attempt at dominance is crushed and quelled. Later, when Linnéa appears taller than a male co-star, she’s told to lose her heels. “Yeah, that’s better”.
Yet, one early photoshoot is revealing. Linnéa struggles to fulfill the demands of the experienced (male) photographer. Her new acquaintance/friend-in-the-making Joy (Revika Reustle) intercedes and the work instantly improves. Behind her own camera, Thyberg makes a case for a different kind of industry. Later on, over Chinese food on an abandoned sofa, the film inelegantly articulates this proposition. GIRLS RUN THANGS. So says a comfy tee our starlet is regularly seen wearing on her downtime. Pleasure suggests that, while that’s not the case at the present time, it might be the ideal way forward.
Thyberg’s prior bias doesn’t tint her film too strongly. It is true that Linnéa endures horrific experiences, including an onset rape that has caused controversy for exposing the worst in Hollywood sex work. But Thyberg also makes time for positive experiences. A candid conversation with former performer turned producer Bear (Chris Cock) shows care and camaraderie. While a fetish scene evidences a considerate and professional working environment, especially important given the extra discomfort involved.
Still, Pleasure shocks and makes us feel uncomfortable when it evidences the darker side of porn, particularly a shoot in which Linnéa performs a ‘rough’ scene and is understandably overwhelmed by the mistreatment and degradation expected of her. It not only opens up an enquiry into the practices of such scenes, but the audience it’s sating. Here – as elsewhere – Pleasure is anything but sexy.
When putting herself in a physically and emotionally demanding situation, we watch as Linnéa disassociates. Thyberg gives a whole new meaning to “blue sky thinking” as her protagonist’s world dissolves into little fluffy clouds. Still, she persists. She wants her dream. More and more, Bella Cherry comes to the fore. As we watch this hardening, this transformation, we’ve prompted to ask what motivates her. The addiction and appeal of fame, adoration, respect (yes, respect) and cash-money? Or something else? Parallels could be drawn to Magnus von Horn’s similarly adept and curious Sweat from last year. When Linnéa finally gets her own opportunity to dominate, we sense the apex of an inner conflict occurring, while the abrupt finale lets us choose her ultimate destination for ourselves.
Newcomer Kappel is sensational, brave and emotionally available. This is a demanding role and she shines throughout, be it when Linnéa relishes projecting her sex worker persona, or when she’s crying and throwing up following a harrowing experience. For her part, Thyberg films with tender clarity, somewhat reminiscent of Sean Baker’s approach (another filmmaker who has shown great solidarity with sex workers). She employs fresh faced actors and extant industry players – both as characters and as themselves – in the process creating an all-too-believable reflection of an alluring, lucrative yet often callous industry.