Pleasure – Sundance Review

by Jason Osiason

Pleasure is an unmerciful, raging and visceral look at the porn industry that brought attention to female victimhood and consent. We follow a zealous porn starlet on her journey straight off the plane from Sweden to Los Angeles. Her name is Bella Cherry and she won’t let you forget there’s not another actress like her. In her feature length debut, Sofia Kappel plays her with a luminous and harrowing performance. She commands nearly every frame.

Pleasure is your archetypal tale of big dreams and hopeful optimism corrupted by the harsh, lived-in realities of an industry dominated by fantasy and exploitation. The character has a savvy idea of the strategies she plans to attest for a quick rise to the top. Friendships to be had are destined for failure with aligning career-goals. There’s a place for just about anyone in the Porn Industry these days with no kink or fetish to spare. Women are expendable, so the word “No” is an automatic dealbreaker if you want to land those bigger and more attractive gigs. Any naive individual can enter it but it takes the most cunning to rise to the top. Bella discovers how in porn you can literally become an overnight sensation with a blossoming career if you have the right representation and no limits. Ingenious casting even has real-life porn actress (Dana DeArmond) in a supporting role as a fellow porn star stuck in the same place Bella is despite over a decade of experience. This empowers her to make swifter moves such as cold calls, new representation and moving far outside her comfort zone. What this entails is participation in a double anal penetration scene.

Director Ninja Thyberg does a fantastic job illustrating a seemingly feminist, post-Me To outlook at the modern-day porn industry. The times may have changed but most people working in it deep down have not. They may pride themselves on consent and empathy of their talent, but as soon you cross them by letting it known your comfort zone has been violated, their true colors come out. In one section of the film, Bella aims to wipe her squeaky clean image and is left confident after nailing a BDSM-porn shoot in the entrusted hands of a prominent female director. High off the success of one scene leads her eyes of more precarious obstacles. In an emotionally numbing and gripping sequence, Bella is left gaslighted and sexually assaulted during a rougher shoot with three men (with one behind the lens). It shows the dangerous realities of having the courage to say “No.” Pleasure powerfully presents how power and influence are treated as currency for consent. You can certainly say no but the consequences could be career-ending while simultaneously the overpowering tension would run high. Concerning dialogue turns to nasty, psychological abuse until you give into one’s demands. Yet Bella is tenacious as they come and does not let one horrible experience corrupt her career masterplan. The film’s formal message acts as a footnote– that genuine pleasure may never materialize in a career dominated by the physical form of sex.

Pleasure is also gorgeously and affectively shot with quite inspired contemporary art direction. The only thing sorely missing is an aiding musical score worthy of attention all on its own. You do have to admire the sheer audacity of making a movie about the porn industry without sterilizing the image of it. This includes close-up shots of erect penises, vaginas, and even creampie facials. Its brutal and uncompromising sexual content is also noteworthy considering it seemingly has a decent-sized budget for a movie about the porn industry. It takes bold risks where most filmmakers and producers would’ve departed in fear the movie could never paint the walls of a mainstream movie theater due to an inevitable NC-17 rating. Thanks to the pandemic-era times we live in, there can be a way for Pleasure to be experienced by all now in its most raw and purest form. 

In the end, the third-act moves a bit formulaically and it sometimes teeters too much into after-school special territory with an ending that instantly calls back to Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Still, it’s a worthy directorial debut from an exciting talent that’s worth your immediate attention. The porn industry has never been experienced as refined and unadulterated as Pleasure and I’m sure it’s a movie we’ll be talking about for the rest of the year. [B+]

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