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Emily Maskell

@EmMaskell

Pleasure – first-look review

Ninja Thyberg’s debut feature delivers an intimate perspective on the adult entertainment industry.

Pleasure follows 20-year-old Bella (Sofia Kappel) as she leaves her Swedish hometown for Los Angeles. Upon arrival at the US border, she tells immigration that she has arrived in America for “pleasure.” In the fallout of writer/director Ninja Thyberg’s film, it becomes clear that Bella might as well have said “business.”

Bella strides confidently into the adult entertainment world intending to become the next big porn star. Seeing new girl Ava Rhoades’ (Evelyn Claire) rise to stardom, it quickly becomes apparent that for Bella to make it to the top she must relax her boundaries. Getting signed to Mike’s (Jason Toler) agency is Bella’s first step, and it’s here she meets Joy (Revika Anne Reustle) and a collective of women whose care for each other is the only protection they receive in the industry.

Explicit from its first moments, Thyberg’s film explores power, sexuality and friendship, adopting a female worker’s-eye view in a male-dominated industry in order to show that the glossy, pristine sets tell a different reality to that behind the camera. Yet Pleasure doesn’t reveal anything new about the gender roles and power dynamics embedded in the patriarchal structures of the adult film industry.

It’s not nudity that makes Pleasure daringly provocative; rather, it’s the underlying concern that Bella’s nonconsensual cries won’t be heard. In one deeply uncomfortable sequence, that nightmare comes to fruition. The male-run set degrades and humiliates Bella in a scene of graphic sexual assault that goes too far. It’s a horrific, voyeuristic and troubling moment.

Pleasure’s perspective is its strongest asset. As Bella, newcomer Sofia Kappel gives a committed performance, shapeshifting into what is expected and needed from her. Added realism comes from the supporting cast and extras, many of whom are professionals from the adult entertainment industry.

Although Pleasure starts important conversations surrounding the entrenched issues of racism and sexism within pornography, as evidenced in Mike’s disdain of being branded a fetish and the poor working conditions the women must endure, these dialogues are ultimately abandoned for a more conventional narrative of straight whiteness.

In trying to assert her agency in an industry that will never let her be truly independent, Bella strives for empowerment but never quite achieves it. Thyberg’s camera turns the focus away from sexual nudity and onto the harsh reality and treatment that these young women face. With clarity, the most dire and disgusting aspects of the porn industry are highlighted in this technically accomplished if potentially divisive 18+ feature.

Published 2 Feb 2021

Tags: Ninja Thyberg Pleasure Sundance Film Festival

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