This harrowing look at the porn industry about a Swedish woman who moves to LA is anything but titillating despite the explicit content.
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I took no pleasure from watching “Pleasure” — at least not the lascivious kind.
Yes, this is a drama about the porn industry. It is unflinching in its portrayal of what goes on behind the scenes of making erotic films (which are mostly streaming shorts these days). There is lots of unblinking nudity and sex acts. It’s not rated by the MPAA, but surely would be NC-17 if it were.
But this movie, written and directed by Ninja Thyberg, her first feature and one based on her own 2013 short film, is clearly not meant to titillate, but disturb. And that it does with a fierce, but nuanced takedown of the porn culture that has spread its seed throughout society.
Sofia Kappel plays Bella Cherry, a young Swedish woman who moves to Los Angeles with the intent of breaking into porn. She’s not some innocent naïf who falls back on adult movies after failing to break into traditional acting, like you usually see in these sorts of depictions. By her own admission, she loves sex, she’s good at it and she takes pleasure from being watched.
She’s soon able to find work at the lowest levels of the business, doing “couch auditions” and the like for $900 a pop. She moves into a seedy motel where she shares a room with other aspiring newbies, including Joy (Revika Anne Reustle), a headstrong girl who gleefully tells producers she’s willing to “do everything” — whereas Bella wants to build her brand slowly before getting into the hardcore stuff.
The modern porn world depicted in “Pleasure” is very different from that of the 1970s or ‘80s, and yet also very much alike. Girls are ranked by their looks, the type of sex they’re willing to have on camera and their social media following. Bella is desperate to get fast-tracked and become a “Spiegler girl,” named after porn superagent Mark Spiegler (who, like many adult film figures in the movie, plays himself).
Spiegler girls sit for magazine-quality photo shoots and do their sex scenes at mansions. Bella becomes intrigued by Ava (Evelyn Claire), a gorgeous raven-haired Spiegler girl who’s icy and driven. “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to work,” she says.
There’s a fantastic scene where they first meet while Eva is being photographed. Bella looks upon Eva with envy and intimidation. Eva glances up from the photographer, regards Bella for a moment, her eyes passing over her head and down her body, clearly unimpressed. Very ripe with female gaze implications.
The other surprising depiction of porn production is that it is, at least superficially, regimented and has its own set of rules. Bella is made to sign papers and make videotaped statements agreeing to what they’re about to do, she’s given hygienic materials to protect herself, is doted upon and repeatedly asked if she’s OK. Safe words, or just the word “stop,” halt the activity immediately.
But underneath that veneer of pleasantry and respect, the women are still viewed as fleshy commodities to be used and bartered. Bella has signed up for this, but is still made to feel like a piece of meat, desired but soon past its sell-by date.
This is laid bare in a horrifying shoot of “rough stuff” she volunteers for because she’s convinced it will garner Spiegler’s notice. It’s basically one long rape scenario, and the fact it’s staged doesn’t take away any of the squirm-inducing trauma.
She can stop anytime she wants, she’s reassured… but that will also mean lost money, lost time, and becoming known as a “drama queen” won’t help her career, etc. These men will reassure Bella in supportive cadences — “you’re so strong and awesome, I know you can do this” — but that tone changes quickly if a girl says no, and means it.
A lone exception is Bear (Chris Cock), who mostly works behind the camera but occasionally in front of it for interracial scenes. He’s been around the business awhile and tries to offer Bella genuine advice rather than serving his own needs. Cock, another real-life porn performer, shows solid depth and screen presence, and could definitely transition to “regular” acting if he desired. (Perhaps with a judicious name change.)
Kappel is charismatic and empathetic as Bella, someone who wants to make it big and has no disillusions about what’s required to get there, but finds the grimy underbelly of the industry hard to stomach. She’s quite revealing of herself in this role, starting with her body and her face, and it’s remarkable how much she transforms between regular woman and heavily made-up ‘porn star’ mode — virtually unrecognizable.
But she also gets plenty of opportunity to explore her character’s interior, her motivations and especially her fears and insecurity.
Sex and the movies have always been intertwined. Every generation or so, Hollywood briefly becomes fascinated with the porn industry. Awhile back we had “Boogie Nights” and “Wonderland,” and lately there’s been “Red Rocket,” “X” and now “Pleasure.”
Using cinema for sexuality and voyeurism is nothing new. Almost from the minute moving pictures were discovered, the people behind the camera convinced somebody to drop their clothes and strut around for posterity. And it wasn’t just tastefully nude ballet dancers pirouetting: hardcore filmed sex goes back to the silent era. (I’ve seen some of it.)
The disconnect is understandable: porn is mainstream movies’ bastard stepchild, officially unwanted but impossible to dismiss.
The big studios don’t like porn — not because they find it objectionable, but because they don’t make any money off of it. Movie stars, particularly women, see it as beneath them (rhetorically speaking) and contributing to objectification, so there’s an unspoken code that porn performers aren’t allowed to cross over to regular movies.
“Pleasure” is a vibrant and shocking portrait of this parallel universe of filmmaking. It’s superficially reformed from the sordid days of “Deep Throat” and the like, but in most ways it’s still the same… possibly even worse. Everyone says it’s about getting turned on, but degradation is the poisoned pillar upon which it’s built.