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pleasure review
A young Swedish woman attempts to conquer the Los Angeles porn industry.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Ninja Thyberg

Starring: Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle, Evelyn Claire, Chris Cock, Dana DeArmond, Kendra Spade

pleasure poster

Cinematic depictions of the porn industry tend to adopt either the conservative view that everyone involved deserves to burn in Hell or the liberal take that the women involved are victims of an exploitative patriarchal system. Not so Swedish director Ninja Thyberg's feature debut Pleasure. For Thyberg, the Los Angeles adult entertainment industry is simply a backdrop for what is essentially a sports movie, one in which an athlete pushes themselves to their physical limits to reach the summit of their game.

pleasure review

The athlete here is wannabe porn star Linnea (Sofia Kappel), a 19-year-old who leaves Sweden and heads to California with ambitions of becoming "the next big porn star." Adopting the stage name Bella Cherry, she throws herself into this world, and has a career trajectory mapped out that will see her begin with "normal" stuff like "solo, boy/girl, girl/girl." Bella soon finds things don’t work that way and to make an impact she needs to push her limits, which sees her moving into the realm of BDSM.

Along with playing like a sports movie, Pleasure is also a backstage drama with an All About Eve subplot – you know, the one where a newcomer tries to usurp the veteran who was initially mean to them. Perhaps a more appropriate comparison in this case might be Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls. Here the Bette Davis/Gina Gershon figure is Ava Rhoades (real life porn star Evelyn Claire), the current superstar of the industry. Rhoades is represented by top agent Mark Spiegler, a real life figure in the industry, and Bella immediately sets her sights on joining Spiegler's stable. In a rather damning critique of American race relations, Bella catches Spiegler's attention through her willingness to perform that most taboo type of porn – inter-racial!

pleasure review

Pleasure is something of a companion piece to the recent college rowing drama The Novice. Both movies feature young women pushing themselves physically, seemingly just to prove they can achieve something, anything. This would seem to speak to a generation of young people who no longer have the traditional route of college into a defined career. Being good at something no longer guarantees you a job; now you also need a "following," with even jobs outside the realm of entertainment being handed to the candidates with the most impressive social media presence (is this the modern version of how in the mid 20th century men would win promotions based on how good of a dinner party their wife would throw? It seems talent and skill have never really been enough).

Bella's motivations are kept under wraps as Thyberg and co-screenwriter Peter Modestij refuse to editorialise her experience. Initially claiming she left Sweden because she found it boring, we might assume she's rebelling against her upbringing but a phone call home suggests her mother is fully onboard with her daughter's career choice. I couldn't help think of George Segal's gambler in Robert Altman's California Split, who gets a thrill from winning until he eventually hits the jackpot and becomes despondent that there's nowhere left for him to go. Bella follows a similar path as she ticks off various taboos, finding herself left with no new way to shock.

pleasure review

With a supporting cast comprised largely of real life porn stars and filmmakers, Pleasure certainly isn't an exposé of that most exposed industry. With its many lingering shots of its young star's body, it would be entirely hypocritical for Pleasure to pass any judgement on the porn world for doing likewise. As a workplace drama it could have been set against any career backdrop. Like any workplace, Bella makes friends and enemies among her colleagues; the difference here is that she has to fuck her co-workers regardless. Bella has some awful experiences, but mostly mundane ones, and the filmmakers she works with are constantly asking her if she's comfortable, though some have found manipulative ways around this. At one point Bella compares one particularly gruelling shoot to a rape, which sees her immediately scolded for using such a description. There are several encounters here that might be described as sexual assault depending on your definitions of consent, but the one that most plays like an out and out rape features a surprising aggressor, a final damning critique of how far some will go in the pursuit of greatness.

 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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