Sundance 2021: “Pleasure” is a painful, provocative viewing

Pleasure Sofia Kappel in Pleasure. (Sundance Institute)

Ninja Thyberg’s tale of a woman’s attempt to make it in the adult film industry is a feature debut that doesn’t pull any punches.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

Fresh from Sweden, Jessica (Sofia Kappel) has just landed in Los Angeles. The customs agent asks her a few questions, and when he inquires whether she’s here for business or pleasure, she says—you know what she says. This is the only moment Ninja Thyberg’s debut feature winks at its audience. From here on out, there’s no sense of humor to be had. Sure, characters will make jokes with each other once in a blue moon, but this is far from a fun watch.

You see, Jessica is in L.A. to become an adult film star, going by Bella Cherry instead. It seems immediate that she’s on her first shoot. She meets Mike (Jason Toler), who soon becomes her agent, and lives with three other young women in the porn industry (Revika Anne Reustle, Kendra Spade, and Dana DeArmond). On paper, it’s a standard star-is-born tale. In some ways it is, but that isn’t the main approach. Pleasure, while incredibly difficult to watch, repackages that subgenre into a look at the cycle of abuse when having boundaries isn’t a commodity.

To be frank, the porn shoots here are graphic. It’s not so much the nudity. It’s the constant fear that something truly awful will happen to Bella despite how much she protests. She has her boundaries—two-person scenes only, no anal sex, not too rough—but it’s not long before she starts agreeing to more material to really make it. However, she never shifts what she’s truly comfortable with, and that’s just part of what makes the whole endeavor such a tough sit.

Pleasure, while incredibly difficult to watch, repackages [the star-is-born tale] into a look at the cycle of abuse when having boundaries isn’t a commodity.

Granted, Thyberg’s script, which Peter Modestij co-wrote, isn’t black and white in its depiction of the industry. One shoot Bella goes on is surprisingly considerate, with a crew largely comprised of women. They ask if it’s okay for the co-star to call her names such as “slut” or “bitch,” and they empower her sexuality. Another shoot later turns out to be an unlikely source of intimacy. One of Bella’s co-stars reveals an insecurity of his, and then he goes on to guide her through a physically demanding scene. The wrinkle here is that these moments of connection come to a halt when the camera turns on.

As a director, Thyberg shows far more interest in the cameras shooting Bella. They’re voyeuristic, sometimes even phallic. As Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Amalie Westerlin Tjellesen cut between shots of Bella’s point of view and the cameras’, Pleasure invites the viewer to deconstruct what points her gaze outweighs that of the men around her. Of course, the approach here is more analytical than empowering. The movie is too cold for that. Kappel—who’s never acted before—is the one who stops the movie from feeling hermetic.

All the discomfort comes to a head in a scene about halfway through. It’s where audiences will either tap out completely or stay to see just what happens next, and to its credit, it’s effective. What happens in this scene is inherently effective because it’s so disturbing. But despite all of the details that cast light on how warped some people’s idea of consent is and how some people use “rough sex” as an excuse to utterly demean a woman on camera, some aspects only go so far. There were points that I sat there thinking, Why? Why this protracted, and why this graphic? At what point does this tip into a different sort of exploitation?

It’s afterward that that skepticism started to fade away. By and large, it’s because Thyberg goes on to solidify just how unsatisfying it is. Lots of movies end before they really begin and suffer because of it. This one, on the other hand, finds its ending and gets to it. The difference is that Bella’s journey really only starts once the credits roll.

Pleasure played in the World Dramatic Competition category at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

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