Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure, based on her short film of the same name, doesn’t hold anything back. It starts out with a series of audible moans, on a black screen, signaling to the viewer the eventual rise of Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), an aspiring porn star who wants to become the biggest in the L.A. sphere, after emigrating from Sweden. But she’s extremely naïve, and will soon learn that the porn industry is filled with men looking to manipulate and abuse her for money. But that won’t stop Bella from trying to reach the upper echelons of the porn industry, and face off against Ava Rhoades (Evelyn Claire), to join the Spiegler Girls and become the biggest up-and-coming pornstar.
In a breakout role, Sofia Kappel gives one of the best performances of the year as Bella Cherry. She is a star and steals the limelight away from her Pleasure co-stars, some of them known in the porn industry. Once Thyberg starts to include Axel Braun, Dana DeArmond, Mick Blue, and Mark Spiegler in minor roles, the movie immediately shifts gears and becomes a self-referential look at the porn industry; how agents treat their talent like objects designed to produce views (and money for them), and filmmakers who don’t care how a scene is played, as long as it ends with gratuitous sex, because that’s what’s apparently selling today.
In some regards, Bella’s rise to stardom in Pleasure can be easily compared to Elizabeth Berkeley’s Nomi Malone in Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. Both girls arrive in a new town, are completely impervious to the industry they want to enter, make new friends and connections in this world, quickly rise to popularity, and everything goes downhill from there. Kappel doesn’t share the same naïveté as Berkeley’s performance in Showgirls (to which she was unfairly lambasted by critics when the film came out in 1995 and ultimately won a Razzie in the process), but is instead in complete control of what she wants.
Bella doesn’t give much justification for why she wants to be a porn star, but her determination is powerful enough that it’ll ultimately lead her to dangerous situations. To say more would mean spoiling Pleasure’s plot, but as mentioned above, the movie doesn’t hold anything back.
Pleasure Official Greenband Trailer
Pleasure’s sex scenes are raw, with Thyberg unafraid at shocking the audiences through Bella’s piercing gaze, knowing what’s at stake, selling her body to become the next big star. These are some of the more terrifying scenes of the movie because nothing will stop Bella from achieving her dreams, even if what she’s doing stretches all forms of logic or rationality–even through pornographic standards.
She’s repeatedly told by her co-stars that no one in their right mind will do what she did, but her resolve to be the best is so stern that she’ll go through massive amounts of physical and psychological pain to achieve that dream. It’s not worth it, we say to ourselves as we watch Bella go through elaborate (and painful) sequences to prove herself to Spiegler, in order to reach “VIP status.” Pleasure‘s wry tone gives it, at times, a darkly funny touch that alleviates some of the more tense-filled scenes of the movie, even if it’s not easy to watch.
Near the end, Bella has the opportunity to directly confront Ava. The scene is so cathartic in its emotional power, and incredibly disturbing that it may have been the one responsible that led the Québec ministry of culture to rate the film 18+ (which almost never happens…many R-rated movies are rated G, with a caveat that it’s not recommended for young children…the traumatic stuff I’ve been exposed to as a kid, in elementary school, will make your jaw drop).
Both actresses are terrific in their respective roles; you love to hate Ava, as she has been constantly mocking Bella from the start, but it’s also the moment where our protagonist has fully understood the industry she is a part of and lays it all out, fully becoming the star she always dreamed of being, even if it means alienating your friends and being alone.
Pleasure is a rather tragic portrait of an aspiring star who will have her soul crushed multiple times in order to make her dream a reality, and become yet another object for the male magnates of the porn industry. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s as scathing of a portrait of pornography, as Showgirls was at examining the question of stardom. When do you say enough? When do you hold back, and say to yourself “Is all of this worth it?”
For Bella Cherry, everything seems worth it for her, even if her deliberate infliction of pain will have drastic consequences on her life. We know it’s all worth it, and the end result will only bring her pain and loneliness, but Thyberg showcases Bella’s quest from beginning to end…until there is nothing to tell, because we know that her life will soon be filled with misery, pain, and regret. It’s a provocative way to tell this tragedy, but Thyberg’s eye, Karl Frid’s operatic score, and Sofia Kappel’s magnifying performance make it one of the very best dramas of the entire year.
If you can see it in a theater with a room full of people, it is one heck of an experience…trust me.
Pleasure is now playing in select theaters. Have you seen Pleasure? What did you think? Let us know over on our social media!