THE STORY – Newly arrived Swedish transplant Bella Cherry coyly announces to an airport immigration official that she’s come to Los Angeles for “pleasure,” but upon her subsequent dive into the world of adult entertainment, she soon realizes it is clearly business. Though she warms to the friendly affirmations of the more seasoned girls, eager-but-green Bella relies on her instincts to navigate her experiences with predatory managers, male-dominated sets, and backbiting competitors.
THE CAST – Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle, Kendra Spade, Dana DeArmond, Evelyn Claire, Jason Toler & Mark Spiegler
THE TEAM – Ninja Thyberg (Director/Writer) & Peter Modestij (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes
By Cody Dericks
I’ve never seen anything quite like “Pleasure.” Director Ninja Thyberg’s feature debut is beyond uncompromising but also never feels exploitive. This is a tricky balancing act considering the film’s setting: Los Angeles’s adult film industry. But rather than attempting to shock, titillate, or shame, it instead tells a story about the dangers of rapid fame and the importance of knowing one’s own worth. It’s humane, enlightening, and entertaining.
The story focuses on Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), a young Swedish woman who comes to the United States with dreams of making it big in the adult film industry. She’s driven and self-assured and will do whatever it takes to climb the ladder of success. Along the way, she surprises herself by making friends and pushing her own boundaries, even if they go against her better instincts.
As Bella, Kappel is phenomenal. It’s a performance that hinges on confidence, and Kappel knows when to turn it up and when to let that strong outer shell crack to reveal the concerned young woman underneath. She’s completely game to do any of the endlessly taxing scenes set at film shoots, and her endless commitment is unbelievably commendable. What’s even more amazing about her work is the fact that this is her debut film performance. She has the fearlessness and the poise of a well-established actress. Filling out the rest of the cast is a wide array of industry characters, including performers, talent agents, photographers, and more. In a genius bit of casting, every single actor in the movie besides Kappel has some sort of connection to the adult film industry. This proves necessary in some of the more explicit moments in the film and the actors’ lack of hesitation to literally expose every inch of themselves is essential in creating a realistic look into this specific line of work. And the actual performances on display throughout the film dispel the stereotype about adult film stars not being able to act. They uniformly bring a level of realism and sincerity to every scene. Most notable is Revika Anne Reustle as Joy, Bella’s closest friend. She’s brittle and charismatic, and the believability she brings to the part is necessary, given the arc her character goes through.
Maybe the greatest accomplishment of “Pleasure” is the way it never once shames its main character, or really any of its characters, for her chosen line of work. Bella even mocks the false notion that all people who go into sex work do it out of desperation or necessity, going on to unambiguously proclaim that she does it purely because she wants to.
The film also doesn’t disparage the adult film industry as a whole. Instead, it takes a nuanced approach to its critiques about the obvious problems that exist within it. In fact, the film’s best moments come from a pair of sequences showing two different shoots that Bella does specifically because they’re “rough.” The first is a highly choreographed bondage scene run by a female director with both women and men working on the production. The entire crew is continuously shown checking in with Bella to make sure she’s comfortable, frequently reassuring her that they can stop the shoot at a moment’s notice for any reason. We even see them preparing her by running through various safe words and gestures and making sure that Bella fully understands them. This is contrasted by a sequence not long afterward featuring two male performers and one male director. They do nothing to make sure Bella is entirely in her comfort zone besides attempting to reassure her with phrases still cloaked in subtle sexism, like “you’re very strong.” Thyberg also uses uncomfortable, abrasive editing and a dizzying camera in this scene, further placing the viewer inside Bella’s disoriented world. These scenes and many others make it clear that perhaps the biggest problem in the adult film industry, as in any line of work, is the exploitation and misogyny that occurs when men lacking empathy are in charge.
Further selling this message is the way the film employs nudity. Ever since it’s been permitted on film, female nudity has been used and exploited, much more often than male nudity. And although “Pleasure” doesn’t shy away from showing women in various states of undress, men are represented with much greater frequency when it comes to graphic nudity. It’s a refreshing change of pace from films that typically deal with sex, and it also helps to underline the screenplay’s themes. Not only are there plenty of naked men, but erections are shown without hesitation. They occasionally overwhelm the frame in a way that represents the imbalance of male-to-female agency in the industry and forces the audience to reflect on what an enlarged phallus represents. Why do we imbue it with such power? And why does showing it at its fullest capacity shock when so often the potency and vigor it supposedly represents are implied in many other metaphorical ways in society? Thyberg weaponizes the female gaze in a way that highlights the absurdity of the dual reverence and embarrassment that the penis often inspires.
On the whole, the filmmaking on display is polished and insightful. There are many instances of clever blocking using mirrors, showing how the adult film industry literally reflects the ideas of conventional physical beauty that the world at large values. An extensive toolbox of editing tricks also keeps the film’s perspective and intentions clear. The screenplay is also well-calibrated and manages to, for the most part, avoid clichés in both the dialogue and the storyline.
There are some moments, however, where Bella’s ambition is unfortunately framed as a negative trait. The film shows her steady climb and increasing recognition until it gets to the point where she seemingly forgets what made her unique in the first place. This is a classic story beat for any tale of suddenly-acquired power, but the film cannot avoid denigrating her ambition in some ways. But ultimately, it’s a story about keeping sight of what’s most important. Even when it falters, it remains true-to-life.
“Pleasure” doesn’t pull any punches, which is necessary to both normalize the sex work being depicted and to tell its story in a way that’s realistic and unashamed. Thyberg’s Bella, brought to life by a stunning performance, inspires the audience’s sympathy and admiration. Her story celebrates women taking charge of their own lives and simultaneously condemns misogynistic practices in every workplace.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – This uncompromising look into the adult film industry has no illusions about the explicit world it’s depicting while at the same time never condemning its main character for her chosen line of work.
THE BAD – While it mostly serves as a refreshingly nonjudgmental story, it does have some moments where it seems to warn against the level of ambition displayed by the protagonist in a way that’s at odds with the film in general.
THE FINAL SCORE – 7/10