In director/cowriter Ninja Thyberg's auspicious film debut, "Pleasure," Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) arrives in LA from Sweden full of aspiration and determination. Underneath her self-confidence, however, belies an air of fragility and insecurity. This is a story of a 19-year-old girl who is eager to enter the adult film industry. What drives Bella to do what she does in front of (and behind) the camera — fame, money, the joy of sex — is deliberately left ambiguous in a film full of explicit sex scenes.
Thyberg's feature is expanded from her 2013 short of the same name. The story follows the rather conventional arc of a young actress looking to make it in Hollywood. It presents the industry in a matter-of-fact way and addresses issues of consent and control. It is compelling (and depressing) even if it does not reveal anything particularly new.
The characters may be uninhibited — the full-frontal nudity by both women and erect men is plentiful — but "Pleasure" is rarely erotic. The various sex scenes are appealing and fascinating because of how Bella experiences them. Kappel's performance is sensational, and not because she is "adventurous" on screen doing explicit acts. The actress (in her screen debut) engages viewers emotionally with expressions that range the gamut from boredom to anger, jealousy to acceptance. Plagued with self-doubt, she calls home for a pep talk from mom. Ambitious, she betrays a friend for the sake of her own career. And self-aware, she apologizes to a costar after a difficult shoot. But she often has agency. Even as she makes poor choices, Bella endears herself to viewers as she observers and absorbs things about the industry in her efforts to achieve her goal of being the next big porn star.
Watching the crew on her first shoot care for Bella — who is so green she doesn't know about douching — is oddly touching. Bella is asked about "nos, dos, and don'ts" when she is doing her initial paperwork and she listens to the useful tips and coaching she receives. When the filmmaker is reassuring as Bella experiences a bout of stage fright, his compassion allows Bella to perform well. Taking sticky selfies after her first scene, Bella lets her guard down and is funny, even playful. A star is born — but will she survive and thrive, or crash and burn?
"Pleasure" portrays the ups and downs in the industry as Bella sets her sights on becoming an A-list "Spiegler Girl," like Ava (Evelyn Claire), a cool beauty who bewitches her. The allure of this celebrity is emphasized in the film; it involves photo shoots, interacting with fans at conventions, developing social media content and followers, and building oneself as a brand. "Pleasure" never lets viewers forget porn is a business. The behind-the-scenes peek at this insular world may be what is most alluring here, and Bella is a terrific tour guide, even as viewers watch her prepare herself for anal, which she is initially reluctant to do.
At a networking party Bella meets porn director Aiden Starr (playing herself) and gets cast in a "rough shoot" for her. The episode, which again involves a crew taking considerable care of Bella's safety — she is tied up throughout — empowers her. "I'm submissive," she says, almost gleefully afterwards, as if discovering something she didn't know about herself. Such are the layers of Kappel's performance.
However, another rough shoot is less protective and more intense. Scenes of the director cajoling Bella to finish filming is easily the creepiest scene in "Pleasure." Moreover, it prompts Bella to cut ties with her agent Mike (Jason Toler). An amusing line in the film refers to porn agents as pimps. Hoping to advance (or relaunch as it were) her career, Bella does an extreme fetish job for no pay to prove herself. The sequence is handled with considerable empathy — perhaps too much.
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
Significantly, "Pleasure" only touches on the real dark side of the industry. Women (and men) in porn battle drug abuse and addiction, poor/unsafe working conditions, employment discrimination, low/unequal wages, physical and psychological abuse, pregnancy, STDs, and other health issues, and more — but little of that is covered here. (The film drops a few hints to these issues.) However well researched and respectful Thyberg's film is, the lack of the seedy underbelly inadvertently glamorizes this business. Tellingly, a scene where one of Bella's roommates, Joy (a feisty Revika Reustle) is harassed and abused by her male scene partner, Ceasar (Lance Hart), who has a beef with her, does not go as far as it might even as it makes its valid point about how women are belittled and debased — and that they do the more difficult work. It underlines an earlier scene of Bella's roommates talking about wanting more power in an industry that generally exploits them.
Thyberg is not being exploitative here; she is telling a story that happens to be set in the adult film industry. But it ultimately feels more conventional and less critical than it could, or should, be. "Pleasure" is a gutsy, well-made, and purposeful film. It provides a cautionary tale that only warns, "Be careful what you wish for."
"Pleasure," which is unrated, releases Friday, May 13. Watch a trailer for it below via YouTube.
More stories to check out: