Director: Ninja Thyberg (Sweden, Netherlands, France). Year of Release: 2021
Los Angeles Airport. A young blonde woman is being asked all the normal questions. Does she have any nationalities other than Swedish. Is the purpose of her visit business or pleasure? She pauses dramatically, grins and then gives her answer. The film’s title might give us a clue, as might the pre-credit sequence of a black screen soundtracked by different porn actors doing their thing.
Bella Cherry (real name Linnéa) says she’s 19, though when she’s not wearing make up she looks even younger. She’s determined to become a successful porn star, but it’s not always clear that she’s got what it takes (or that having what it takes would be a characteristic of a stable person). At her first shoot she has stage fright, and though she looks right for those ingenue roles, it’s not always easy separating the character from the performer.
“Bella” has found herself a first job which will net her $900. She also has an agent, who tells her she need never do anything she doesn’t want to. She is bivouaced in a house with other girls – they’re almost too young to call them women – who are also trying to make it in the industry. At first she is cold with them – making herself an omelette while they order in pizza – but slowly, gradually, she starts to make some friends. In an environment like this, you need friends to have your back.
Very early on, Bella’s Black minder tells her that he does the occasional porn job, but only in the most scandalous sort of film. So, what is this genre, which is more shocking than bondage or violent sex? Inter-racial sex, apparently. “That sounds a bit racist”, says Bella. “It sounds a bit racist, because it is a bit racist”, he replies. This is a film with a clear awareness of oppression.
Pleasure spends a lot of time looking at the dubious issue of consent. At the beginning of each film, Bella signs all sorts of forms saying that she knows exactly what she is about to do. She is photographed with her ID and today’s paper to prove she isn’t underage. The director and other people on set reassure her that she can stop whenever she wants if she feels uncomfortable. And the people in charge seem much more attentive than your bosses in most other jobs.
And yet this consent has very narrow limits. Bella’s ambition means that she tells directors that she’s not like all the other girls. But she isn’t very well known and doesn’t have enough followers on social media. If she is going to get anywhere in the business, she is going to have to get involved in more violent, more dangerous, more traumatic performances.
All along the way, men (and the occasional woman) are preying on her insecurities. When she starts to have second thoughts, they assure her that subjecting herself to increasingly violent degradation is a sign of strength. After a particularly distressing encounter, when she tells her agent that she was raped, he refuses to take her side, telling her that this is what she signed up for, but if she has any problems, she should come straight to him.
We see just how much of a double life Bella is playing, when she rings her mother in Sweden. Her mother believes that Linnéa is doing an internship, so when she hears that her daughter is having problems with crazy people at work, she says that of course Linnéa is welcome back home, but maybe she should work a bit more on winning a few more friends. After all, didn’t she leave Sweden because she thought everyone there was crazy?
One of the gimmicks of Pleasure (if you want to call it that) is that, apart from Sofia Kappel, who plays Bella, all the other actors have a day job in “adult films”. This explains unlikely names on the cast list like “Chris Cock.” Not all of the porn veterans are actors. We also have sleazy super-agent Mark Spiegler playing himself. The fact that Spiegler is happy to play in a firm so critical of people like him shows that he may well be absolutely shameless.
The result is a moving, if thoroughly depressing film. I have seen a review saying that Pleasure is sex-positive, but at no time do you see people having sex for fun. On more than one occasion, I asked myself “Who the fuck watches this sort of shit?” The films we watch being made show little regard for women, and in many cases there’s no need for plot when you can just slap a woman in the face or force her to lick your shoe.
I’m not entirely sure how to react. This is an exceedingly well made film which is making an important point, but there is no sense in which watching it was fun. Director Ninja Thyberg avoids the obvious danger of being too preachy, and respects the autonomy of women who choose to become porn actresses, while being very aware that for all the poolside parties, they are treated as the lowest of the low. It’s called the porn industry for a reason, you know.