Swedish writer and director Ninja Thyberg tries to give an unvarnished glimpse into the workings of the American pornography industry in her debut feature Pleasure. The film may seem limited in its scope, as it follows a single Swedish woman who moves to Los Angeles to get her start in the insular industry. But Pleasure is informed by Thyberg’s extensive and intimate knowledge of the porn business, acquired from months of interviewing performers, filmmakers, agents, and other people involved in making the kind of content everyone consumes but few people want to talk about. It’s a fascinating drama that heralds an ambitious rising filmmaker.
Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), the Swedish transplant, signals her determination to rise in the adult industry from the first scene as she goes through customs at LAX and declares she’s there for “pleasure,” not business. Despite having no official credits to her name, she’s ambitious and already determined to be a face everyone in the industry will know. Bella already has a spot reserved for her at a house with three other women that’s run by her manager, who helps her find jobs while taking a cut of her pay. She’s standoffish at first, as she imagines she can advance in porn by keeping her head down and merely doing the work, but over time she warms up to the other girls.
Thyberg adopts an episodic structure that highlights the vast differences between sets and how filmmakers and other performers respect Bella. Although that can make films feel too choppy, here it mimics the real experiences of a performer who goes from job to job. Some are easy and ideal while others are tortuous to navigate as a novice. Thyberg often imbues her scenes with a documentary feel that’s enhanced by the presence of copious porn performers. One of the best and most natural performances is from the male talent Chris Cock, who is working behind the camera on Bella’s first scene. He helps talk her through what to expect and navigates an early moment of stage fright, before reappearing as a performer later. Bella’s ambitions including becoming a “Spiegler Girl,” a client of the top porn agent Mark Spiegler. Spiegler shows up as himself in the film, signaling a new level of professionalism in Bella’s career, though she may not be ready for that kind of work yet.
Pleasure benefits from Thyberg’s dry style and the lived-in feel of its real-life porn stars, but its greatest coup is Kappel’s casting as Bella. The film was her first film performance ever, which is hard to square with how naturalistic she appears on screen. Whether she’s slathered with makeup on a porn set or wearing her natural face at the group house, she fits in completely with the professionals. Her sleepy eyes and pouting lips give her a kind of blank mask when she’s performing for cameras, but the veil slips when she’s on her own. It’s easy to feel distanced from the character, as we often see her when she’s putting on a performance, but a key phone call to her mother back in Sweden allows her to show Bella’s inner turmoil when it’s most impactful.
Thyberg has said that many of the scenes on porn sets were inspired by stories she heard while interviewing porn stars, and they paint a picture of the varied way in which productions approach consent and the rights of their performers. Most of the scenes Bella works on, feature only men on set, both in front of and behind the camera. Some bigger budget sets feel airy, open, and secure, but in another horrifying shoot, she’s abused by three men who make her feel as if she can’t say no. These scenes are contrasted with a female-directed bondage shoot, which is paradoxically the roughest scene she films and also the one in which the behind-the-scenes crew is most concerned about her safety and comfort. It would be easy to take Pleasure’s most disturbing scenes as evidence of Thyberg’s porn-shaming attitude, or general sex-negativity, but there’s a fairness to her approach. The horrible things that Bella experiences are similar to things plenty of actresses have dealt with, but the director doesn’t try to tar every aspect of the adult film industry. Whether Bella will continue in porn is left unresolved at the end, but she at least comes to understand more about herself and her desires. She’s still figuring out what is ahead for her, but at least she now knows what she wants.