Pleasure is an incredibly explicit movie about the porn industry. The filmmakers and the cast are allegiant to the movie’s cause and, by doing so, allow boundaries to be crossed in terms of what a movie can usually show. The results are eye-opening, thought-provoking, absurd, disturbing, and sometimes too hard to watch. However, I can’t imagine a “clipped” or “watered down” version of Pleasure. Without its mature assurance and commitment, Ninja Thyberg’s movie wouldn’t strike as hard.

The movie’s rising star story follows Swedish newcomer Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel, in an explosive debut) as she arrives in Los Angeles with the fearless aspirations to become the next big breakout porn star. Starting at the bottom (no pun intended), she shares a bungalow with other hopeful amateurs and quickly tries to learn the ropes on her first shoot. As we watch Bella attend different shoots, we clearly see the point co-writer/director Thyberg is making with productions with a predominant male presence. The on-set personalities spill over with machismo, channeling through condescending remarks or intimidation. The representation skates close to a heavy-handed portrayal, but then we’re reminded that our perspective is the same as Bella’s. The behaviours exhibited between takes are chosen by these men to gain power over performers, notably women. The long-term effects on these performers result in trauma or numbing forgiveness. A brilliant but tough final competitive confrontation between Bella and a fellow actress portray both, and it completely astonishes the audience.

When Bella dips her toes in BDSM on a hardcore shoot, it’s actually the most accommodating and civil despite the dicey kinks. There’s always a female presence and there’s more of a personal connection between Bella and her male screen partner. This fantastic scene is held in contrast with a following shoot that’s even more violent and involves a limited male-only crew and raging miscommunication and intimidation. The latter is hard to endure, especially with Thyberg’s decision to incorporate blackouts and jump edits, but the effect is lasting and gruelling through its authentic lens. Thyberg wants the audience to identify with women who are put in uncompromising situations, and her approach works in spades.

Comparison’s between Bella’s story and Paul Verhoeven’s cult hit Showgirls, I want to believe, are not accidental. However, it’s as if Ninja Thyberg watched Showgirls and saw an opportunity to improve on Verhoeven’s attempt to identify with female performers in an adult industry (especially the sexual assault that takes place within a few quick edits in the 1995 drama). By turning down the camp factor and perceiving these situations with a more compassionate eye, Ninja Thyberg has made a movie that’s strong and important.

Pleasure is now playing at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. Each screening is followed by a pre-taped Q&A with Sofia Kappel.


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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie

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