Sundance Review: Ninja Thyberg’s ‘Pleasure’

Pleasure Sundance Film Festival
Sofia Kappel appears in Pleasure by Ninja Thyberg, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Sundance

In the half-century since the “adult” film industry emerged as an above-boards legal activity, precious few legit feature films set in that world have emerged that a wider public has found edifying; the great Boogie Nights and not much else. The new Swedish drama Pleasure, a first film from young Swedish director Ninja Thyberg that was selected for last year’s ultimately canceled Cannes Film Festival and has now finally premiered, albeit virtually, at Sundance, now joins the short list of looks at the inner workings of the busy industry that are actually worth seeing.

“Are you here for business or pleasure?,” the U.S. customers officer asks the arriving young Swedish blonde (Sofia Kappel) as she clears customs. Chewing gum in a bored manner, she indicates the latter, although a year later that would by no means be the case. Next we see her, the 19-year-old is madly shaving her private parts in preparation for her first porn gig, for which she is to receive $900.

She understandably has stage fright as she enters the apartment and is welcomed into this new world by guys who are quite solicitous of her comfort and needs. “Pretty good for your first time,” she’s told as she finishes her first day’s work.

So she’s in the door, albeit in a gingerly fashion, as she declares that she’s “not yet” into anal, but that’s okay, as another gal says she’ll do anything. The newly renamed Bella Cherry declares “I’m here to work” and that’s what she does. The shoots could not be more rudimentary—the cameras look like high-end versions of most people’s home video equipment, and while the participants tend to be on the scuzzy side, the crew members seem to be solid working stiff Joes.

Thyberg presents the outer manifestations of Bella’s life as virtually identical to those of the countless other young women who arrive in Hollywood looking to get a break: She takes an apartment with some other hopeful actresses, tries to land an agent and gets invited to parties along with endless other pretty young things.

The difference is that, at work, most young women aren’t tied by knots and hoisted up on ropes for S&M purposes. Admitting that she’s learned on the job that “I’m very submissive,” her all-in-a-day’s work attitude doesn’t prevent her from feeling terribly rattled after doing a scene wherein two guys give her a very rough time sexually. As soon as the cameras stop rolling, the men couldn’t be nicer and more supportive, but that doesn’t change the reality; her sense of being degraded by her work has begun.

Any number of films and plays and books have examined this process of moral and spiritual deterioration caused by some form of physical abuse, but Pleasure has the added edge of showing it in vividly realistic terms. There are plenty of male appendages wagging around in various stages of excitement, as well as degrading scenes that end when a director calls cut or even before, if a woman feels things are going too far. But by then, it’s usually too late, plus you won’t get paid if you don’t finish. One can try to blithely dismiss the excesses as being all in a day’s work, but with repetition the moral callouses build up and harden. Many jobs may chew people up and spit them out, but in porn the process happens far more quickly and decisively.

There’s no real surprise in any of this, but Thyberg keeps things interesting by realistically showing what goes into a porn shoot from the actors’ point of view—how the men need to have their own ways of keeping up appearances, so to speak, while the women soon learn that their value often rests on how far they’ll go, such as taking on two guys at once or being strapped up in leather and chains. The more extreme the fetishes, the better. Thyberg has definitely done her research and put it to good use. The may not be XXX, but XX is plenty sufficient in this case.

Pleasure is not moralistic in an old-fashioned way, not at all, but it does deliver essentially the same message as more conventional stories have done down through the years: If you allow yourself to be taken advantage of and do things you otherwise wouldn’t do just for the money, you’re likely to feel cheapened, coarsened, degraded, morally hollowed out.

In such cases an old Hollywood movie would have had such a woman either die in an accident or be redeemed by true love and a man’s forgiveness. More recently, the solution would likely have been for her to resolutely close that chapter and try to begin another. And now? Evidently pick up a camera and shoot her take on the situation herself. As Thyberg has done, in a resolute, finely focused way.

Pleasure made its world premiere in the World Dramatic Competition sector. Running time is 100 minutes. Sales agent is CAA.

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