Pleasure review: A striking debut that astutely reframes the conversation around the porn industry

Ninja Thyberg’s film is a sincere call to look at porn for what it is, and how it’s driven by the same struggles against worker exploitation that affect everyone else

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 16 June 2022 21:45 BST
Footage from Pleasure a Drama from Swedish film director Ninja Thyberg

Dir: Ninja Thyberg. Starring: Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle, Evelyn Claire, Chris Cock, Dana DeArmond, Kendra Spade, Jason Toler. 18, 105 minutes.

Linnea (Sofia Kappel) is on the phone to her mother, crumbling into pieces. She wants to leave Los Angeles, return home to Sweden. Her job’s become far too much to stomach. There’s no choice now but to give up. Sure, but as her mother warns her: “There’ll always be people who want to bring you down, especially if you’re a young woman.” What a sage piece of advice – but would her mother feel any differently if she knew her 19-year-old daughter wasn’t, in fact, in America for a cushy internship? Linnea is a performer in adult films. And porn, as Pleasure argues, is like any other industry, though the vulnerability it demands from its workers, especially its women, pushes the stakes so much higher.

The story Ninja Thyberg tells in Pleasure, her feature debut, is a familiar one: Linnea, who performs under the name Bella Cherry, arrives in LA fresh-faced and pumped full of ambition. When asked by the border guard whether she’s in the country for “business or pleasure”, she hesitantly answers the latter. There’s a sense, in Linnea’s mind, that she’s really chasing after some harmonious balance between the two. And she’s always chasing, always forced to weigh up what she’s willing to sacrifice in exchange for a single step up the industry’s ladder. Is it worth the fresh clots of blood that dapple her skin when she’s shaving every inch of her body? Is it worth locking herself in the bathroom so she can pep talk herself into her first scene, like she’s a boxer about to enter the ring? Is it worth turning a blind eye to a friend’s suffering, because the only thing valued more than talent is compliancy?

You could dismiss Pleasure as just another story of a lost soul tumbling down the rabbit hole. Linnea quickly finds herself a nemesis – the elegant but aloof Ava Rhoades (Evelyn Claire), the latest to sign with top agent Mark Spiegler (playing himself). Linnea wants what she has. And she won’t let anything stop her. But context is important here. A feature-length extension of the short Thyberg directed in 2013, and the end of a lengthy exploration that stemmed from the director’s former anti-porn roots, Pleasure astutely reframes the conversation around the industry. We never really see any of the sex, in a way that not only severs the audience’s connection to the final product, but emphasises the everyday mundanity of porn shoots, as technicians hastily move lights about in between takes. Sophie Winqvist’s restrained but calculated camerawork allows us, instead, to step into Linnea’s shoes – we see from her perspective, or she stares right out at us. And Kappel’s astounding performance constantly draws the film’s energy back to her in a way that ensures the audience is never in doubt of Linnea’s own agency, even in her most vulnerable moments.

The phrase “sex work is work”, in the context of Pleasure, isn’t presented as mere performative solidarity – it’s a sincere call to look at the industry for what it is, and how it’s driven by the same struggles against worker exploitation that affect everyone else. Outside Kappel, most of the actors are real figures from the world of porn (Spiegler, Claire, Revika Reustle, and Chris Cock among them), and the film has already sparked up an internal debate about its accuracy.

Porn is such an exposed, and oddly fragile industry, that everyone makes a show of talking the talk when it comes to consent. An assistant films Linnea on their iPhone as she answers a lengthy series of questions about a forthcoming scene. She signs form after form. But that duty of care is really an illusion – those precautions are to protect the company, not the performers. That’s the lesson any employee learns over their lifetime.

During one scene of extreme rough sex, Linnea begs the three other men in the room to stop. They rub her back and call her a “very strong girl”, but there’s a constant, slow-burning menace to their words. Their manipulation swiftly starts to blur the lines of consent. It’s a difficult, horrible scene to watch – placed in stark comparison to the positive, supportive experience Linnea has on a BDSM set overseen by a female director, Aiden Starr (also playing herself). There she’s able to push her own boundaries in a way that doesn’t de-centre her own pleasure. In truth, Thyberg’s film may not change people’s minds on the porn industry. But it might just convince them to join a trade union.

‘Pleasure’ is in cinemas now, and can be streamed via Mubi from Friday 17 June

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