Those expecting the titular feeling from Pleasure are in for a rough ride. Writer-director Ninja Thyberg’s debut feature is a bold evisceration of the porn industry and its treatment of women both on and off screen. While it presents plenty of nudity and initially titillating situations, Pleasure isn’t here to seduce; its story is as much about sex as it is about power and abuse. However, as difficult as the drama is to watch at times, this is an incisive, nuanced look at the business that reveals ways it can be better — then absolutely rips it to shreds.
In a sea of films about the adult film industry — Boogie Nights, Wonderland, umm, Bucky Larson — Pleasure is the rare one from a female perspective, both in the character it centers and the filmmaker behind the camera. However, neither Thyberg nor her film are the anti-porn crusaders of second-wave feminism. Bella Cherry (newcomer Sofia Kappel) arrives fresh-faced in L.A. from her native Sweden, and when the customs agent at the airport asks if she’s in the U.S. for business or pleasure, she breathily replies, “Pleasure.” With her doe eyes and ever-glossy full lips, Bella is eager to become the next porn star, with an equal love of performing and the act itself.
Bella’s early experiences on the job are generally positive, from the support she receives from roommate and fellow adult actress Joy (Zelda Morrison) at a photoshoot to the surprisingly sweet extreme scene she films with her friend Bear (Chris Cock, not a typo). Shooting a BDSM movie with a female director leaves her empowered and wanting more, but she soon learns that not every production is as concerned with the comfort and welfare of its actresses, especially when she is the only woman on set.
Pleasure isn’t a scold about sex or porn, offering scenes that demonstrate that adult films can be made ethically and still be hot. Multiple productions utilize careful checklists to ensure Bella knows exactly what she’s getting into and how much she’s getting paid. It’s no coincidence that Bella’s best day at work is on a set led by a woman director, where other women are present. There’s a clear concern that Bella feels safe at every point — and can easily slow down or stop if she doesn’t. Elsewhere, the indignities from the men in power range from the slight of the insulting dismissal from a super agent to the outright abuse and assault she receives from filmmakers and her costars. As people climb the ladder within the industry, they almost inevitably wield it against those on the rung below, creating a culture of exploitation.
With these scenes, Pleasure intends to make you squirm, rather than turn you on — and it will certainly succeed if you think of women as anything more than objects. Sure, nudity and sex abound here: Jackass Forever has a new rival for most dicks in a 2022 film, and there are more boobs than in a raunchy ‘80s comedy. However, as frank as Pleasure is about sex, it also carefully avoids the male gaze and any leering. Its opening credits feature overlapping audio from porn, full of moans and grunts, but no actual sex. Thyberg doesn’t hesitate to show a close-up of razor scratching over pubic hair in a shower, but precise framing keeps penetration just off screen. Pleasure is a hell of a debut for the filmmaker, which she expanded from her 2013 short of the same name. It’s richly detailed and fully immersed in the world it depicts, surrounding first-time actress Kappel (who is a real discovery) with actual actors from the porn industry. Pleasure often feels like a documentary, making it an even more effective, unsettling watch.
Thyberg’s movie intentionally denies the audience what some of them might want to see; instead, it delivers a powerful commentary on what happens behind the scenes in the adult film industry. Pleasure is compelling and persuasive, with a lingering resonance that will likely affect how — or if — its audience watches porn in the future.
“Pleasure” is in theaters in New York and Los Angeles Friday. It expands on May 20th.