From the summary of Ninja Thyberg‘s Pleasure, you might think you’re about to watch a girl-centric Boogie Nights. A young starlet-to-be newly arrived from Sweden has dreams of breaking into the American porn industry, but the road that lays before her is more fraught than she had imagined as she works her way to the top. “Are you here for business or pleasure?” the airport customs officers inquire of 19-year-old Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), real name Linnéa, a doe-eyed, tattooed angel with lip injections and a kewpie-doll face. Bella replies confidently: “Pleasure.”
That first scene, which ushers us into the film with a kind of glossy chutzpah, is followed by one in which Bella painstakingly bends over herself in the shower to shave her vagina, a sequence acting as a prelude for the real narrative that’s to follow. A continuation of Thyberg’s 2013 short film of the same name, Pleasure is not about a Dirk Diggler or even a Nomi Malone (though Pleasure shares more in common with the melodrama of Showgirls than the Paul Thomas Anderson epic), but a woman doing an unglamorous job for near-thankless returns. It’s a grounded look at working towards an idealized kind of stardom that doesn’t exist — at least without emotional abuse — while maintaining realistic stakes, avoiding the pitfalls of misery porn, and even featuring real-life porn actors.
After setting up camp in Los Angeles, living in a house with multiple other porn actresses and actresses-to-be as roommates, Bella begins booking gigs. She starts off with a solo shoot where she experiences douching herself for the first time, then she introduces herself to the camera and is filmed giving a blowjob to a much older man who finishes on her face. The camera reveals his large (real?) cock and the glistening ejaculate that covers her mouth, cheeks, and forehead, and she takes seductive pictures of herself covered in the clear goo. While still leaving some things to the imagination and straying from tipping into real soft-core porn, Pleasure doesn’t pull any punches. Women bare their chests, men hang dong, and sex is, most notably, portrayed as a daunting task as opposed to anything that might elicit arousal from the viewer.
Bella embarks on her first photoshoot alongside her cocksure roommate, Joy (a standout performance from newcomer Revika Anne Reustle), an abrasive Floridian whose offbeat allure compliments Bella’s more stereotypical beauty, and is introduced to us by demanding entrance into their bathroom to pee next to Bella while she puts on her makeup. It’s at the shoot that Bella is faced with the roadblock that is her timid demeanor and discomfort in being seen in her own body, despite how conventionally attractive she might seem. But Joy, whose initial brashness put the two women at quiet odds, jumps into the photoshoot to save Bella from the awkward cues of the middle-aged photographer and guides her into sultry poses. Joy’s warm humor and confidence in her own skin softens the edges of Bella’s shyness and leads the two of them into a tender friendship.
Though Bella’s reserved attitude was deemed favorable during the aforementioned solo shoot (“We need that innocence,” she’s told by fellow porn actor, Bear, played by real-life porn actor Chris Cock; “Innocence…” she apprehensively replies), her unwillingness to do more than solo shoots, girl-on-girl, and guy-on-guy proves disadvantageous as she hungrily tries to climb her way through the ranks. She learns that actresses are more desirable for work if they are willing to take on the “hardcore” shit, and Bella realizes she needs to step out of her comfort zone if she wants to reach the level of success hoped for in her R-rated version of the “American Dream.”
So, she takes on a BDSM shoot where she’s gagged and tied up, though it’s peanuts compared to the rough, rape scene she agrees to directly after. It marks a turning point in her search for stardom where the lines are blurred between consensual acting and genuine abuse. If the work is sex work, what is “stepping outside boundaries” and what is true mistreatment? And though she reluctantly agrees to go through with the scene after suffering humiliation at the hands of the two male actors and director, she fires her agent (Jason Toler) in a fit of rage for placing blame on her.
The harrowing rape shoot and the events that follow act as something of an unspoken epiphany for the ever-cautious Bella — that her desire to maintain her autonomy in this line of work cannot exist without the exploitation of herself and others. It’s an unfortunate fact that Bella finds herself eventually falling for, while still never swapping out her quiet, raspy voice or guarded posture for that kind of a bombastic, Dirk Diggler-esque ego trip. Bella never has her Dirk or Nomi Malone moment where her tunnel vision is narrowed towards starry-eyed success and anyone who stands in her way is discarded. Instead, it manifests as quietly agreeing to do things she doesn’t want to do — like a double anal penetration scene — or throwing a friend under the bus when they’re uncomfortable, or showing sexual dominance and excess aggression towards a porn actress (played by Evelyn Claire) who was only ever quietly dismissive towards her.
In Pleasure, it all amounts to the little things that make a job unbearable, which turn you into a person you don’t recognize while you hardly know that it’s happening. And the film also acts as a fascinating portrait of the porn industry, one in which female comfort looks to be placed above all else yet abuse and degradation simmer threateningly underneath it. There is no outward misogyny nor cinematic cruelty, only offhand remarks, tense situations, and the guise of maintaining “professionalism” under which the bodies of women are still exploited by men and for male consumption.
Thus, Pleasure could be considered a spiritual sibling to Kitty Green’s The Assistant, where a normal day-in-the-life of an entertainment mogul’s assistant conceals quiet contempt within a chillingly hostile yet utterly ordinary environment. And Sofia Kappel offers a similarly compelling performance as Bella, a girl whose topless body is often flanked by hunched shoulders and crossed arms, and whose desire to be autonomous and set boundaries for herself sets her back in this line of work that demands all of her.
But sex work is not necessarily denigrated in Pleasure — on the contrary, it’s portrayed like any other job. Any other thankless job in a country where women work in venomous, male-dominated environments. Pleasure is a harrowing yet captivating look at the consequences of chasing success within an exploitative, capitalist society, and of the grey moral area that exists in an industry that demands your body for consumption.