Review: Pleasure (Ninja Thyberg)

Through a Porn Glass Darkly
at the 44th Göteborg Film Festival

With Pleasure, Ninja Thyberg delivers a resounding, troubled and troubling debut feature, taking us on a vertiginous descent into the underworld of the rambunctious and infernal L.A. porn film industry, slowly revealing its implacable inner workings. The film had its European premiere in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition of the Sundance Film Festival, shortly thereafter followed by its international premiere at the 44th Göteborg Film Festival in the Nordic competition. It was one of the 56 lucky titles (along with Sweat, also competing in the Göteborg Nordic competition) to receive the coveted Cannes label last year, after the pandemic forced Thierry Frémaux to cancel the May event only to reveal a list of films he would have shown in a COVID-free world. We will never know whether the film would have competed for the Palme d’Or or in the Un Certain Regard sidebar section, but there is little doubt that this astounding and bold debut would have electrified the Croisette.

The sexually graphic Pleasure is an empowering cautionary tale and a wake-up call that brilliantly subverts the porn industry from within. It reverses the male gaze in many challenging instances – without ever resorting to a moralistic stance – by throwing a raw light on the radicalization the industry has undergone over the past couple of decades when it comes to extreme sexual practices and rough sex scenes (bondage and BDSM, among others). After a very long immersion in the L.A. industry and years of extensive research on the topic, the young Swedish female director has managed to gain the trust of and surround herself with a cast of real porn industry figures, be they actors, agents or directors. They all agreed to play a part in her daring documentary-like fiction, though most of them ended up embodying a figure/character that had nothing to do with their real-life porn persona, blurring even further the lines between documentary and fiction with brio.

With the urgency of a Dardennesian camera the film closely follows the roller-coaster path of Linnéa / Bella Cherry – young Swedish actress Sofia Kappel in a fearless tour-de-force debut performance – from her arrival at the L.A. airport where a customs officer asks her whether she is visiting the US for business or pleasure, to her cathartic self-liberation in a Mulholland Drive-like finale in a night cab opposite Ava (real porn star Evelyn Claire). With a malicious smile Bella answers the customs officer’s question with “pleasure“, giving the film its perfect albeit twisted title. This scene is pure genius and sets the tone for what is to come. She is here to become the next big porn star in Tinseltown – aka the new Spiegler girl, a reference to legendary agent Mark Spiegler, who happens to be one of the rare porn industry figures to play himself in the film.

From the first graphic scene onward the Swedish director does not shy away from representing erect penises, whereas she maintains a certain sense of modesty when it comes to representing the naked body and intimate parts of her main female protagonist (or any of the other female characters, for that matter), reversing the male gaze for once and displaying all the power dynamics that the film will further investigate throughout its bumpy course. The bravura of Kappel’s performance echoes those of Anna Thomson in Amos Kollek’s cinema or Amira Casar in Catherine Breillat’s controversial Anatomy of Hell. She possesses this instant je ne sais quoi charisma that lights up the screen like there is no tomorrow. To think this is her debut as an actress is nothing but flabbergasting.

Sophie Winqvist’s impeccable cinematography sculpts the contours of the oft-naked bodies under the unique California light without ever glamorizing them, while Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Amalie Westerlin Tjellesen’s precise editing gives a pulsating flow to the film that mirrors the inner turmoil agitating Bella’s psyche on her journey from fleeting stardom to liberation of the self. The director offers a wider-than-wide spectrum of the inner workings of the porn industry but her gaze is neither one-dimensional nor moralistic. She films the glamorous villas and glitzy pool parties, but she also unveils the implacable mechanisms behind the curtains that more or less force an aspiring porn star to accept everything that is being asked of her in terms of roughness and extremism if she wants to attain said stardom. The film thus aptly mirrors a society in which porn has nowadays become a norm, a daily practice behind one’s telephone screen or laptop, a monumental (internet) market. It goes way beyond what any documentary has ever achieved on the topic and becomes an instant landmark. In the wake of such an astonishing debut, Ninja Thyberg’s sophomore effort will undoubtedly be an absolute priority for all festival programmers.

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Pleasure (Ninja Thyberg)