02nd Aug2021

Sundance London 2021: ‘Pleasure’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle, Evelyn Claire, Chris Cock, Dana Dearmond, Kendra Spade, Jason Toler, Lance Hart, Mark Spiegler | Written by Ninja Thyberg, Peter Modestij | Directed by Ninja Thyberg

Swedish writer-director Ninja Thyberg makes an impressive debut with this documentary-like exploration of the Los Angeles porn industry. Centred on the experience of a ambitious newcomer, Pleasure is provocative, bold and disturbing, shot through with wit and intelligence and never feeling less than authentic.

Swedish first-timer Sofia Kappel plays 19 year old Linnéa, who’s travelled from Stockholm to Los Angeles in order to make it in the porn industry under the name Bella Cherry. After her first shoot, she moves into a “model house”, where her new roommates – most notably down-to-earth Joy (Revika Anne Reustle) – give her a few insider tips: who the big players are, who to avoid, most flattering Instagram angles, how to monetise banana-sucking videos, that sort of thing.

Bella soon sets her sights on becoming a “Spiegler girl”, under the auspices of high-powered porn star agent Mark Spiegler (playing himself). However, after a few phone enquiries, she realises she’ll have to make a name for herself to stand out, so she pursues more and more extreme shoots.

The ruthless rise-to-the-top plot carries echoes of Showgirls, but Thyberg eschews trashy sensationalism in favour of a strong sense of authenticity. She’s clearly spent a lot of time on porn sets (her short film, also called Pleasure, took place at a porn shoot) and that experience is apparent in every frame of Pleasure – indeed, she’s on record as saying that almost everything in the film is drawn from something she witnessed in real life.

Accordingly, the film is packed with riveting detail on the business itself, from the intricate contracts and rigourous safety measures to the surface professionalism, as well as the backstage gossip in the interactions between Bella and her housemates. That extends to a level of professional jealousy, as Bella finds herself developing an obsession with Spiegler’s current top performer, the alluringly aloof Ava (Evelyn Claire).

Pleasure‘s strongest section contrasts two extreme porn shoots. The first (the only one directed by a woman) initially seems the most terrifying, with Bella being chained up, whipped, etc, but the level of consummate professionalism on set leads to it being a pleasurable experience for Bella, so much so that she mistakenly assumes all extreme shoots are like that.

That sets her up for the second shoot, this time directed by a man, that goes very differently – in contrast to the choreographed first shoot, this time she’s just meant to sit back and take it as two male performers treat her extremely roughly, spitting, slapping, and so on. It’s a deeply upsetting and disturbing sequence that casually exposes the misogyny, violence and toxic masculinity of the darker side of the industry – it’s telling, for example, how quickly the surface niceties disappear once Bella says she wants out.

Kappel is terrific in the lead role, with her piercing blue eyes and intriguingly blank expression – her performance is consistently intriguing because you’re never quite sure whether she’s naïve or laser-focused on her ambition and prepared to do whatever’s necessary.

The support cast lend Pleasure another layer of authenticity, as they’re all played by real-life porn professionals. To that end, there’s superb work from Revika Anne Reustle (who has strong moments of both humour and pathos) and from Chris Cock, as black performer Bear, who forms a touching connection with Bella – it’s also a nice touch that the film resists taking that in the obvious direction.

The only strange note in Pleasure is the weirdly abrupt ending, which literally bails out altogether rather than attempting a more meaningful final scene. Perhaps Thyberg felt she was done with climaxes by that point?

**** 4/5

Pleasure screened as part of this years London Sundance Film Festival.


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