For a facet of media that has long shaped the desires and sensual sensibilities of humans en masse, pornography largely remains a cagey and taboo subject to explore artistically. Photographers like Robert Mappelthorpe and Ren Hang are renowned for their sexually explicit snapshots of BDSM and radical nudity—yet cinematically, approaching porn has often meant flinching away from candid insights of the industry itself. Boogie Nights is essentially an elegy for the decline of ‘70s Hollywood filmmaking, Hardcore leans too heavily into paternalistic fears of the “good girl gone bad,” Zack and Miri Make a Porno is so steeped in amateurish observations that it’s impossible to reflect on the overarching industry. Swedish director Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure, however, isn’t afraid to delve into the behind-the-scenes reality of creating mass-marketed porn—all without pivoting into a long-winded metaphor or cautionary screed. As such, the writer/director’s observations are unvarnished and exact, detailing the nuances of one of America’s greatest cultural tenets while adhering to an admittedly familiar cinematic premise of a rising star in a tumultuous career. What’s so original about the film, though, is its assertion that performing on a porn set isn’t an idealized fantasy or a one-way ticket to self-abasement—it’s simply work. And like all workplaces under capitalism, these workers are under-paid, under-valued and under-protected.
Pleasure follows Bella Cherry (an astounding breakout performance from Sofia Kappel), a 19-year-old Swede who arrives in L.A. with the sole intention of becoming a porn star. But first, she has to gradually wade into the murky waters of the industry she’s entering as a total outsider. She gets an agent, moves into a “model house” with other aspiring girls, and quickly lands her first gig. Playing a freshly-legal 18-year-old, she’s told to wince in momentary pain as her co-star’s penis enters her. She is reminded to keep her gaze eternally locked with the camera, so that the “guys watching at home” can further project their fantasies onto her. After a few directorial adjustments—jeans fully removed as opposed to pooling around the knee, feeding Bella the cliche “it’s so big!” dialogue—the scene ends in a standard money-shot. As opposed to reaching for a towel, Bella grabs her phone. Licking the mess off of her lips and fingers, she takes a few snapshots for Instagram. Afterwards, the director and crew marvel at what a “natural” she is. “I’m here to fuck,” she proudly professes.
Yet, she swiftly realizes she’s not the only girl with the same wet dream. She’s cagey toward the women she shares a mutual home and agent with. However, her roommate Joy (Revike Reustle) immediately wins her over—the two’s bond solidified when they playfully simulate fellatio with a banana. Though the two might be vying for the same sense of recognition, they both realize that their line of work is only made lonelier without a shoulder to lean on. As Bella eyes the prospect of signing with Mark Spielger (who appears as himself and is truly one of the industry’s most coveted agents), her journey to the top puts a definite strain on the few positive relationships she manages to form.
It’s vital to note the tremendous research and personal immersion that Thyberg undertook, making Pleasure a warts-and-all depiction of porn that still retains the humanity of all the players involved. While Kappel delivers an incredible debut performance, her co-stars are all actual porn performers, agents and industry workers. Much of their inclusion in the film is predicated on the real-life rapport forged with Thyberg during her foray into the adult film world. The filmmaker resided in a “model house,” became a regular fixture on porn sets and developed genuine friendships with several actors as a result.
Even more intriguing is Thyberg’s former alignment with the anti-porn feminist movement, her activism leading to arrest on at least one occasion. When doing research on the topic for a gender studies course, however, she began to develop more than a knee-jerk revulsion to porn—or perhaps more aptly, to the women who work in the field. To go from being a staunch porn detractor to saying porn agent extraordinaire Mark Spiegler “has a good heart” demonstrates a total re-evaluation of the topic, but this does not mean that Thyberg now views porn as an inherently empowering landscape for women. Through actively absorbing and documenting the working conditions on-set, Thyberg also distills a nasty truth about porn’s patriarchal power structure: The titular Pleasure that Bella seeks is principally reserved for men. The men on-set, the men behind-the-scenes, the men masturbating at home. Bella may have come to L.A. to fuck, but she’s certainly not here to come.
It soon becomes depressingly clear that much of the work Bella and her colleagues get is rooted in an idea of sex that views female pleasure as negligible. The orgasms of male actors are tantamount—their literal climax and the film’s are one in the same—while porn actresses are often relegated to the role of vessel or canvas for ejaculation. Of course, this isn’t always the case. Bella has a transformative experience on a woman-directed porn set, featuring bondage, safe words and sex toys galore. Though it stills plays into fantasies of feminine subservience, it is substantially closer to actual women’s sexual desires—which is perhaps why Bella actually achieves orgasm on this shoot (with the director even encouraging her co-star to “get her there” off-camera). Realizing she is actually turned on by submission, Bella asks her agent to book her more roles in that vein. When the next set she lands on is “rough shoot” involving a male director and two male co-stars, what she originally consents to morphs into an hours-long session of constant coercion. Bella’s tears, ragged breathing and pleads to stop only add to the male director’s intended effect.
While comparisons to Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, Janicza Bravo’s Zola, and even Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud all hold water (particularly in regards to Verhoeven’s cult classic NC-17 satire), it’s safe to say that Pleasure has considerably more in common with Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls. Both films radically demystify separate sects of the sex industry, focusing on the everyday existence of the average worker as opposed to relishing in sensationalism. Borden similarly employed a sense of lived-in realism to her film, shooting on location in a New York City brothel. There is nothing romantic about either film, but that’s exactly the point—the grand majority of us work jobs that pay us peanuts yet expect us to never complain. Wage theft occurs in porn as it does service industry jobs; sexual harassment is endemic within countless professions; women suffer from a general pay disparity in almost every line of work out there—porn and sex work are no different. Our common enemy as workers is the capitalist machine that deems us disposable, not the people who simply show up to work everyday to perform a sought-after service. This survey doesn’t exactly let men off the hook, though—porn is made by and for them, and men are also who see the industry’s biggest profits. Again, this statement is essentially true of any business. However, people are far more defensive when it comes to analyzing how their porn consumption negatively affects society as opposed to, say, supporting Amazon. When so many consumers instinctively boycott a business for their heinous treatment of employees, what stops them from scrutinizing the porn they watch that just might do the same?
Of course, if Pleasure preaches anything, it’s that our preconceived notions of the industry aren’t as black and white as we might like to believe. Plenty of women actively pursue careers in the industry—what will make all of the difference in their experiences, however, is the equal effort for women to be represented behind the camera as often as they are in front of it. With the feminist and ethical porn movements still holding strong, many can easily satiate their wildest fantasies without worrying about the morality of their sexual consumption. In fact, a multi-billion dollar industry won’t crumple if viewers profess their preference for women’s pleasure—it’ll probably try harder to gratify it. Until the unlikely day arrives that the porn industry converts into a feminist free-for-all, just be wary of how your Pleasure might very well come at the cost of others.
Director: Ninja Thyberg
Writers: Ninja Thyberg, Peter Modestij
Stars: Sofia Kappel, Revike Reustle, Chris Cock, Evelyn Claire, Dana DeArmond, Kendra Spade, Mark Spiegler, John Strong, Lance Har, Aiden Starr, Aaron Thompson
Release Date: May 13, 2022
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine, Paste Magazine and Blood Knife Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan