Pleasure – Sundance London Film Festival 2021 – Film Review

Pleasure is a raw, authentic portrait of the pornography industry safely crafted and tautly edited by a female film director, Ninja Thyberg, but its hardcore portrayal of the industry will certainly warrant a trigger warning. Pleasure is not a film for the faint hearted with its uncompromising depiction of a gruelling, cautionary rags to riches tale exploring the pursuit of the American dream. Its off-camera sounds of sexual activity provide that initial forewarning that pleasure for the sake of success is not always satisfying and may indeed be rather mundane.   What follows is one woman’s immersive sexual odyssey that retains its shock appeal throughout whilst she undertakes a dramatic process of self-discovery and transformation akin to a tragic Shakespearean character.

As much as Pleasure depicts an industry that remains controversial for its objectification and exploitation of women, the film also highlights its obvious need for reform.  Under Thyberg’s vision in Pleasure, the sex workers’ industry has obviously not embraced inclusionary practices and therefore warrants the necessity of more women within the crew and management roles of pornographic films to prevent the continuation of nefarious practices against gullible, young women. These misogynistic elements blend smoothly with the film’s bleak message regarding individual ambitions and desires through that masculine lens, which is a tough watch.

Bella Cherry, that’s her stage name, arrives from Sweden to the USA for ‘pleasure’ and absent-mindedly signs a consent form at a studio without checking the small print. It is from that moment that her innocence begins to erode. Despite Bella’s career trajectory in Pleasure to the peak of porn stardom traversing social media, BDSM and the close framing of explicit filming techniques, there is more to the film than mere titillation. Indeed, its graphic nature may be distressing to some but the film’s focus on the corruption of the individual by the industry’s process and the inadvertent impact on female friendships provides further depth and a unique outlook.

Sofia Kappel as Bella Cherry in Pleasure
Sofia Kappel as Bella Cherry in Pleasure

The ascension or descent of Bella, with a powerful performance by first time actress Sofia Kappel, in this seemingly glitzy but ultimately ugly industry means that any sense of morality is blurred with uncomfortable co-ercion. The initial cosiness of fun female friendships, with a clichéd women dancing wildly car scene, is sharply eroded as a casualty of Bella’s naked ambition. It is this erosion which may ultimately seem more shocking as a betrayal of ‘girl code’. The adage that it’s lonely at the top certainly rings true within the film which also exposes the levels of depravity requested for the actors to undertake within the mise en abyme. Pleasure also shines that spotlight on fetishisation and racial divisions within America, reflected through the pornography industry, and whilst there are a lot of nuances to unpack, and indeed the film’s depiction may be perpetuating some of these harmful stereotypes, it is commendable that Thyberg was unafraid to tackle these controversies.

Equally, the influence of the patriarchy in the pornography industry to incite female competitiveness and an undiscovered ruthlessness in Bella is frightening to witness. Effectively, the women are expected to put up, shut up and acquiesce to despicable levels of violence to advance their careers and penetrate, no pun intended, the glass ceiling.  Indeed, the underlying themes of female agency and empowerment are integral to the film and characters wear t-shirts bearing messages such as ‘Girls Run Things’ to deliver the message bluntly highlighting that need for change.

Pleasure at its heart conveys that all that glitters is not gold and that we may not always achieve that inner contentment through the dizzying heights of success.  It is an impressive analysis of the politics governing the pornography industry and the lack of female empowerment and solidarity that is still present to this day.  Whilst Pleasure employs shock and awe devices as part of its storytelling, it is a bold and confident feature debut from the female gaze and as such Thyberg will definitely emerge as a director to keep on the radar.

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