Bella Cherry has journeyed to Los Angeles from Sweden with the goal of becoming the world's biggest porn star. Why? Pleasure doesn't tell us and it doesn't really matter. This is her ambition, and no explanation would ever truly be satisfactory. She is who she is. Played by Sofia Kappel, a fearless Swedish newcomer with more than a passing resemblance to pop singer Zara Larsson, Bella is determined to succeed, come hell or high water. Filled with explicit material that makes it not for the easily offended, the film traces her trajectory, which doesn't always go according to plan.
The movie starts off with Bella making an introduction video that involves her performing oral sex on a man and getting a “facial.” (I warned you it was explicit.) With that under her belt, she forms bonds with her housemate Joy (Revika Reustle) and a male porn star, Bear (Chris Cock), who specializes in interracial porn. They help her learn the ins and outs – no pun intended – of the business. The real key to making it is to become a client of one particularly powerful, star-making agent. That, however, entails being willing to literally do anything. Anything, in this case, meaning the most extreme, hardcore stuff imaginable, and doing it without complaint. Bella starts making the case for herself in that regard, doing a bondage video and progressing from there.
Early sections of Pleasure are graphic, yet also absurdly funny. Casting the picture with real adult film workers, Kappel aside, writer/director Ninja Thyberg dissects the making of pornography by showing the mundane aspects of sex work. An opening scene, for instance, has Bella filling out paperwork detailing what she will/will not do on camera. Watching porn actors make idle chit-chat before diving into sexcapades, then chatting again afterward additionally serves to demystify the process. One director keeps asking Bella if she needs a bottle of water during a two-on-one tryst. Such matter-of-factness proves engrossing, as it gives us a peek behind the curtain.
The film goes darker in its second half. Bella does indeed subject herself to increasingly humiliating acts. No matter how much she tells herself – and others – that she's okay with it, we can see the toll it gradually takes. Thyberg effectively visualizes her dissociating herself during one brutal job in order to get through it. Kappel is riveting in how she suggests the character's internal unraveling through facial expressions. A lot of her performance is in the eyes.
Pleasure gradually reveals itself to be about how pornography changes a person, whether they think it will or not. Different viewers will be struck by different elements. For me, the key sequence finds Bella showing up for a “rough” gig that entails two dudes slapping her, spitting in her face, and just generally degrading her. After breaking down mid-scene, her co-stars and director are sympathetic, telling her that she doesn't have to do anything she's not comfortable with. Then, when she actually considers bailing, their tone changes. They start gaslighting and pressuring her to finish. At a fundamental level, Pleasure deals with XXX porn's perpetual cycle of people psyching each other up to do acts that threaten to leave psychological scars.
For all the shocking content – and, frankly, I learned a few new things here - Pleasure is a very serious film that never attempts to titillate or arouse. Thyberg takes an almost anthropological approach to the story, observing the milieu of porn-making without judgment. In so doing, we end up with an incisive portrait of the mindset that allows individuals to function in this world. We witness how Bella changes – how her ambition takes her to more destructive places. A dangerous intersection exists between how much she wants to fulfill her dream and the personal cost chasing that dream brings with it. Tense drama resides in that idea, and the movie's unflinching realism proves necessary in driving the themes home.
With Sofia Kappel's astonishing performance at the core and a neon-infused color scheme that emphasizes the artificiality of the professional universe Bella finds herself in, Pleasure proves to be a smart, captivating human story about a young woman who learns the truth of the old adage “Be careful what you wish for.”
out of four
Pleasure is unrated, but contains pervasive explicit sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.