‘Pleasure’ Movie Review: Boldly Evocative Filmmaking About the Porn Industry [AFI Fest 2021]

Pleasure is a solid drama that takes a closer look into the porn industry. Writer/director Ninja Thyberg is a fascinating new voice in filmmaking who doesn’t shy away from exploring darker corners of the human experience. Pleasure won’t be for everyone, but Thyberg’s directorial feature debut is the most honest look at an industry that’s often highly stigmatized by society but secretly embraced by many.

‘Pleasure’ dives deeper into the porn industry

'Pleasure' review actor Sofia Kappel as Linnéa/Bella Cherry sitting on a pool raft in a red and white swimsuit
Sofia Kappel as Linnéa/Bella Cherry | Neon

Linnéa (Sofia Kappel) is a 19-year-old woman leaving her small Swedish town for a new life in Los Angeles. She dreams of becoming the next big porn star. Linnéa decides to perform under the name Bella Cherry. However, the pressure on-set quickly weighs on the up-and-coming star. But, she refuses to allow that to stop her from achieving her dream.

Bella grows a close bond with the other girls living in a shared living space who have the same career aspirations. Together, they want to build up their brands. They dream of becoming a “Spiegler Girl,” which the industry considers the top level of porn star actors. However, one of Bella’s first contacts in LA warns her about trusting any of the other girls.

‘Pleasure’ seeks to reclaim power

Pleasure begins as soon as Bella arrives in LA. The audience never learns much about her history in Sweden. The porn industry is the backdrop for her character arc, but the raw nature of the industry is quickly revealed. Pleasure highlights the non-sexy prep work required to make these scenes happen, while simultaneously disarming harmful porn industry stereotypes such as “daddy issues” and other family trouble. Bella has a positive relationship with her supportive mother, even if she isn’t entirely honest with her about why she’s in LA.

Gender dynamics are consistently threaded throughout Thyberg and Modestij’s screenplay. Bella primarily works with male figures in the industry, including cast, crew, agents, and managers. Some of them may appear sympathetic toward her when shoots get a bit too rough, but it’s a tool to exert power over her to complete a scene. However, Bella lowers some of her defenses when she works with female porn directors and when she’s spending time with the other girls in her temporary home to who she grows progressively closer.

Pleasure looks through a sociological lens with the themes of gender, classism, and racism as they relate to the porn industry. Bella wrestles with the industry and plays along with many of its unsettling rules, but Thyberg’s story is about reclaiming power. The weight of the industry is crushing, yet Bella refuses to let that destroy her. Pleasure is an intense film that is about degradation and the struggle for truly owning what the world seeks to take away from its lead.

Director Ninja Thyberg and actor Sofia Kappel are ones to watch

'Pleasure' review filmmaker Ninja Thyberg and actor Sofia Kappel taking a photo in orange and white
L-R: Ninja Thyberg and Sofia Kappel | Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb

Thyberg’s film is raw and palpable. So much so that it should come along with a trigger warning for one particular sex scene that’s hard to get through. Pleasure never shies away from the ugly side of the sex industry, but it also shows the beauty in Bella’s life. The audience is never told what to think, but it certainly is pointed in how it wants you to feel.

Pleasure criticizes and demonizes the porn industry while simultaneously trying to break down some of the stigma surrounding sex work. It’s a dynamic outlook that sometimes gets a bit crossed. There is an abundance of movies that show the nasty side of the industry, but Thyberg’s extensive industry research pays off. She has a unique vision that will make her one of this generation’s filmmakers to watch. However, Pleasure doesn’t entirely capitalize on its most substantial themes, making its non-ending feel even more disappointing and unfinished.

Kappel’s uncompromising performance as Bella is the glue that holds the movie together. Her debut acting appearance is hard-hitting and brings every nuance of this character to life. Unfortunately, Bella’s arc and the movie’s examination of the industry don’t feel entirely fleshed out. Nevertheless, it is justifiably unnerving, explicit, and raw. Pleasure is fresh and boldly evocative filmmaking, even if it doesn’t all come together.

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