The protagonist of Pleasure is a plucky young performer who has moved to Los Angeles with a dream of superstardom. Bella Cherry (played by Sofia Kappel) has a Hollywood story that gets told off- and on-screen all the time: An ambitious starlet does anything she can to break into movies, grasps at celebrity while encountering corruption, and tries to maintain her integrity in a craven business. But despite following that well-worn formula, Pleasure distinguishes itself by looking into an underdiscussed cinematic niche: the porn industry.
The director Ninja Thyberg’s new film is graphic yet deeply unerotic. It’s loaded with sex and nudity, but both are largely presented in a clinical, businesslike way. The opening sequence sees Bella going through the procedures of her first porn shoot, signing paperwork and talking through sexual logistics with the detached tone of someone about to assemble IKEA furniture. These slice-of-life details, while sporadic, make Pleasure compelling, offering a distinct perspective on a creative process that can be mundane but seems always at risk of spinning out of control.
Bella’s journey through the porn world somewhat mirrors classic Tinseltown tell-alls such as All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard. She starts out as a spirited nobody, living in an apartment with other aspiring performers. After some early success, she goes too far while testing her limits, has her professional boundaries disrespected on set, and eventually has to sacrifice some of her closest friendships in order to get by. But Thyberg (who co-wrote Pleasure with Peter Modestij, adapting it from her own short film) is not merely trying to disturb viewers by exposing the industry’s dark side.
Her camera instead regards those grim moments as blankly as it does consensual scenes of pretend eroticism, taking in a wide breadth of experiences that a young actor like Bella might have in L.A. In one fascinating segment, Bella has a positive experience making a BDSM film with a female director, who encourages her to push her boundaries in a safe way, giving warm and friendly tips as the two women adjust the knots on Bella’s harness. Another sequence revolves around a shoot for a scene that’s intended to be degrading and abusive, a challenge Bella thinks she’s ready for and then struggles with on set.
What makes that story line so upsetting is not just the substance of the scene they’re performing, but also the ways in which the male actors on the set rapidly switch between being supportive when the cameras aren’t rolling and monstrous when they are. The scene is part of a short film, a tiny production involving three actors on a couch. Yet the atmosphere is cold and capitalistic due to the dismissive, hostile reaction Bella’s co-stars have when they realize she doesn’t want to finish filming and might cost them a paycheck—and also due to the idea that the market demands such harrowing content in the first place.
Thyberg isn’t castigating the presumed audience of movies like this, merely lifting the veil on the ethical corners that often get cut in this industry—and much of the entertainment world at large. Pleasure doesn’t seem horrified by the idea of pornography, or the nuts and bolts of porn production, but it’s very up-front about how unfair and callous many of those involved can be, despite the massive vulnerability required to film unsimulated sex. That kind of offhand cruelty can be found in every creative field, of course, and some characters in Pleasure fit Hollywood archetypes, such as preening, egotistical producers; scummy male actors who casually hit on their female counterparts; and over-the-hill stars who are clinging to their fading fame.
Because this film is debatably documentary-like in its approach, a lot of its characters are actual porn stars and behind-the-scenes figures who are credited as playing themselves. But I think Thyberg could have found even more to mine in a fully nonfiction movie; the biggest drawback of Pleasure is that it follows a fabricated protagonist who’s remote and one-dimensional. Bella is so defined by her stock story that it’s hard to grasp what’s motivating her beyond a desire for success, and the film gets bogged down in this staid narrative. No other mainstream movie releases are like this one, given that its depictions are so uncensored. But a truly revealing portrait would make the quieter moments just as accessible.