Pleasure review: An explicit and unflinching drama

Much like the ambitious protagonist at the center of its story, Pleasure isn't afraid to get down and dirty. The new film from Swedish writer-director Ninja Thyberg is a deep dive into the world of the American porn industry that's told through the eyes of Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), a Swedish girl who moves to Los Angeles with plans to become the next big porn star. Bella doesn't waste any time beginning that pursuit, and neither does Pleasure.

After opening with a brief but explicit audio clip from an over-the-top sex scene, Pleasure follows Kappel's Bella as she arrives in the U.S. fresh off her flight from Sweden. The film's first images show Bella filling out paperwork and providing her fingerprints before being asked by an unseen customs agent if she's come to the United States for business or pleasure. After pausing for a brief moment, Bella replies, "Pleasure."

It's an instance of meta-humor that kicks Pleasure off on a tongue-in-cheek note, but it's not the moment in the film's prologue that is the most indicative of what's to come in Thyberg's feature directorial debut. Instead, it's the moments when Bella has to sign paperwork and mark her fingers with ink that feel the most in line with Thyberg's intentions in Pleasure, a film that's less about eliciting its titular feeling and more about exposing the mechanics of an industry that produces content designed to titillate and excite.

Business or pleasure?

NEON, 2022

Despite the promise of the film's title, Thyberg is not interested in creating the same feelings in Pleasure that its characters are. She makes that clear early on when Bella shows up at a vacated LA home to shoot her very first porn scene.

Throughout the sequence, Thyberg systematically lays bare (no pun intended) all the awkward truths and tricks that are lingering beneath the surface of every porn scene. The film, which is unrated in the United States, features numerous explicit images and sequences. That's not surprising given the film's subject matter, but it's a testament to Thyberg's control as a director that it never feels like she's taking Pleasure's moments of nudity or sex too far.

That achievement is partly the result of the film's bright and glossy aesthetic, which imbues Pleasure with a sterility that stops it from ever feeling even remotely sensual. The film's look just reinforces Thyberg's desire to explore the business side of the porn industry rather than the sexual side of it. Her exploration results in Thyberg revealing many insider details that most people likely don't know about the porn industry, as well as the rampant misogyny that runs throughout it, which can make female performers' lives unfairly difficult.

That aspect of the industry is deftly expressed by Thyberg in one of the film's best stretches, which begins when Kappel's Bella participates in a BDSM scene that's directed by a woman (Aiden Starr).

Climbing the ladder

Pleasure review: An explicit and unflinching drama

The experience turns out to be a positive one for the budding porn star. The scene's rules are established early on and its crew goes out of its way to make sure Bella is comfortable with everything that happens throughout it. Energized by the experience, Bella tells her manager (Jason Toler) to find her a scene of a similar nature.

The scene she gets is directed by a man and stars two other male performers, all of whom pay little care to her emotions throughout the shoot. The sequence is extremely difficult to watch, and the experience nearly convinces Bella to leave both LA and her burgeoning porn career behind. She doesn't end up doing that.

Instead, Bella decides to take matters into her own hands and pursues a manager (Mark Spiegler) who has the power to make her the star she believes she deserves to be. That decision marks a turning point for Pleasure, with the film gradually becoming less invested in examining the porn industry at large and more interested in exploring how Bella's ambitious nature leads her to abandon many of her own rules in the hopes of getting what she wants. It's during this section that Kappel's skills as a performer are most apparent. Pleasure marks Kappel's feature film acting debut, but it doesn't take long for the wide-eyed nature of her performance to fade away.

The same goes for Bella's naivete, which is eventually replaced by her all-consuming desire to succeed. As the character, Kappel does a good job of bringing Bella's calculating, cold side to life, especially in Pleasure's final act.

A (porn)star is born

Pleasure review: An explicit and unflinching drama

Thyberg's decision in Pleasure's back half to turn it into a morality play about the cost of reckless ambition is also what makes the film's final stretch its weakest. Bella's overall arc ends up feeling disappointingly familiar, which makes the entire film feel more generic than it should.

That's partly due to the fact that her journey is one we've already seen a thousand times before, but it's more the result of Bella feeling less like a three-dimensional character than a vessel for Thyberg's own interests. That doesn't mean Pleasure is an unsuccessful feature debut for Thyberg. On the contrary, the film is sharply edited from start to finish and its ability to skip between multiple different tones within a single scene is thanks to Thyberg's own, bone-deep understanding of her material.

Her examination of the porn industry is comprehensive and even-handed in a way that is undeniably impressive, and throughout the film, she reveals many of the industry's biggest issues without ever casting judgment on (most of) the people who choose to participate in it.

Consequently, Pleasure's title ends up feeling less like a promise and more like a statement about the myriad ways in which an industry that is designed to simulate pleasure so often fails to ensure it for many of its female stars.

Pleasure hits theaters on Friday, May 13.

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